There is no doubting Jane Leavy’s bona fides in baseball and in sportswriting.
She grew up a ballplaying, self-described tomboy in Roslyn in the late 1950s and ‘60s, “at a time that wasn’t very forgiving of tomboys,” she said.
Eventually she pitched “badly and briefly” for the Blue Jays of the Roslyn Little League, never given a full uniform to wear and used only to mop up in lopsided games.
Oh, and her grandmother lived a block from Yankee Stadium, in a building called Yankee Arms.
As for sportswriting, as a graduate journalism student at Columbia in the mid-1970s she spent a year following Red Smith, the famed sports columnist, and decided, “If it’s good enough for Red, it’s good enough for me.”
Later she worked at the Washington Post, and wrote well-regarded biographies of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle.
So far, so good. Then this: A proposal to write a new book on Babe Ruth, one of the most well-documented figures in sports history, including a 1974 biography by Robert Creamer that is considered a landmark in the history of the genre.
More recently, Leigh Montville wrote a biography of the Babe in 2006.
“I didn’t want to write it, for all the reasons you’re saying,” Leavy said Tuesday, the publication date of “The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created.” “The oeuvre is long, and it is good. I mean, it’s not like Bob Creamer did a bad job. Or Leigh Montville.
“I knew the first question would be: Why another book about Babe Ruth, and did you find anything new?”
She spent a year before agreeing to the job, reading everything she could find, and even spoke to Creamer about it before he died in 2012. Creamer had spent little time on Ruth’s childhood, opening a door to explore the man more fully.
“You couldn’t write a biography of Winston Churchill without his childhood,” Leavy said. “But so much of sports biography was a biography of a career, and not a whole life.”
She came armed with an edge that Creamer lacked.
“I perceived myself as working at an impossible disadvantage, which is everyone you need to speak to is presently dead,” she said. “It turned out that it wasn’t.
“It was offset by the fact the digital revolution - even since Leigh wrote his book - has so improved access to old newspapers and to personal histories and documents of birth, death, divorce, arrests, whatever.”
The result is the most complete account yet of Ruth’s complicated, tragic family life, including siblings who died young, parents who separated and, most famously, being shipped off to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore.
The lack of information about that part of Ruth’s life hit home for Leavy when she visited his daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens – who is now 102 – and she spoke of Babe’s parents, George Sr. and Kate, having separated.
That prompted Internet-based research that led Leavy to a Baltimore Sun story about their divorce and later to arrest records and other archival material that unearthed sordid details, such as George Sr. finding his wife on the dining room floor with his bartender.
“He said she was an alcoholic and had them arrested and threw her out of the house and got custody of the three kids,” Leavy said.
That was not even the worst of it.
“It’s awful,” Leavy said. “When people said his childhood was Dickensian, they had no idea.” Ruth watched four siblings die in infancy before he was sent off to St. Mary’s for good.
“Here’s a little boy who’s seeing death all the time, and then, after they lose all these kids, they nevertheless send him away. How does that feel? At age 7 your parents have two children left, and they can’t be bothered with one of them.
“To me that was the key to understanding not just the sadness you see in his eyes, which is there if you look, but also the need for the public affirmation and the sheer glee at being surrounded by that kind of love (from fans).”
The book seeks to break new ground beyond Ruth’s childhood, notably how his visionary agent / public relations man / financial advisor Christy Walsh helped him navigate his celebrity in an era in which mass communication was reinventing what it meant to be a star.
Leavy called Ruth “an inadvertent revolutionary.”
The book largely avoids overdone material about big games and plays and focuses on his experiences, and the experiences of those around him. It is structured around a month-long, cross-country exhibition tour he went on with teammate Lou Gehrig after the Yankees won the 1927 World Series.
“I wanted to recreate what it was like to be Babe Ruth and be with Babe Ruth at that specific moment at the height of fame, when being famous was being redefined by technology and marketing and a visionary named Christy Walsh,” Leavy said.
She finds particularly telling an image from an exhibition game in Syracuse in 1925 on the inside cover. It shows a mob of boys engulfing Ruth but looking more at the camera than at the star, because the most important thing was not seeing him but being seen with him – a hint of the 21st century social media culture to come.
“I don’t think there is a picture of him where he looks happier, where he’s in his element,” Leavy said. “He was the perfect person to be the first modern athlete-celebrity. He grew up in an institution that had dorms and the dorm rooms had a hundred boys sleeping head-to-toe in cots that permitted no room for anything personal, no room for privacy.
“They ate together, they showered together, they played baseball together . . . What was comfortable for him was being public. What was uncomfortable for him was being alone.”
For all his gluttony, womanizing and other flaws, Leavy said she came away respecting what Ruth made of himself.
“Julia said he never talked about his childhood or his parents,” Leavy said. “The only thing he ever said about St. Mary’s to her was, ‘I never felt full.’ Now, literally they had six cents per boy (per day) from the state and city to feed these kids. But I think it’s also a metaphorical statement about how he felt about his life.
“And so he went on a public binge of eating and drinking and filling himself up with the roar of the crowd and the pressing of flesh – of every kind – and it worked for him . . . I came away incredibly impressed with what he was able to make of himself, given the challenges he had.”
Leavy sees in her three baseball-star biographies a trilogy of sorts.
“Koufax eschewed celebrity, knowing what it can cost you as a human being,” she said. “Mantle was a guy who was destroyed by it. And Babe is the guy who created it.”