Saturday, April 21, 2012

"Man, this is baseball, you gotta stop thinking!"

Even though my kids don't care to watch baseball games, they love watching baseball movies. The favorite, of course, was "The Sandlot" until the DVD went missing. I love that scene where the fat kid says "Check it out, I'm the Great Bambino" and the new kid says "who's that?" The kids aren't just shocked – they're scandalized! – and they start rattling off names like the Sultan of Swat, the Colossus of Clout, the Titan of Terror, the King of Crash...

Call him what you will, the Great Bambino was a hero to millions. Fans called him The Babe but his teammates called him The Bam. He was legendary for his ability to smash home runs, setting a record that stood until recently (and many will argue that it still stands), and nearly every one was "the longest ball ever hit" in that park. Legend has it that near the end of his career he even had the arrogance to point to the center field stands and then hit the ball there on the very next pitch – "The Called Shot." He started out as a pitcher – and a good one, too – but hitting the ball was what brought the crowds to the stadium. You could even say he single-handedly changed the game. He had a talent for baseball and boundless energy that few have ever matched.

Unfortunately, that energy earned him plenty of trouble off the field. His off hours were usually spent eating and drinking excessively and carousing all night long. That didn't stop him from turning in another great performance at the ballpark the next day, but it ruined his marriage and chances of coaching after his career was finished. He was hard enough to handle as a player and owners didn't want to deal with him as a manager. He was a lousy father and a worse husband – never having seen a good example of either on account of being left to an orphanage at a young age. All those years of privation and meagerness came busting out in a headlong rush once he had money, and the money usually followed just as fast.

Leigh Montville has done a great job of putting together the life and times of George Herman Ruth in The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. He's done extensive research but doesn't try to fill in the unknown gaps – "the fog" – where little or nothing is known. He presents the facts and stories and legends and lets the reader decide. He's not trying to "tear down the myths" but to tell the "Sportscenter generation" the story of one of the greatest baseball players ever, even if it isn't always the prettiest story to tell. And that's what is so entertaining about this book: it's part hero-worship that shows us the hero was part-man, too. The pedestal Ruth stands on may be a little wobbly, but he's still up there.

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