The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth

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Broadway Books, 2007 - Biography & Autobiography - 390 pages
8 Reviews
He was the Sultan of Swat. The Caliph of Clout. The Wizard of Whack. The Bambino. And simply, to his teammates, the Big Bam. From the award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller Ted Williams comes the thoroughly original, definitively ambitious, and exhilaratingly colorful biography of the largest legend ever to loom in baseball—and in the history of organized sports.

“[Montville is] one of America's best sportswriters.” —Chicago Tribune

Babe Ruth was more than baseball's original superstar. For eighty-five years, he has remained the sport's reigning titan. He has been named Athlete of the Century . . . more than once. But who was this large, loud, enigmatic man? Why is so little known about his childhood, his private life, and his inner thoughts? In The Big Bam, Leigh Montville, whose recent New York Times bestselling biography of Ted Williams garnered glowing reviews and offered an exceptionally intimate look at Williams's life, brings his trademark touch to this groundbreaking, revelatory portrait of the Babe.

Based on newly discovered documents and interviews—including pages from Ruth's personal scrapbooks —The Big Bam traces Ruth's life from his bleak childhood in Baltimore to his brash entrance into professional baseball, from Boston to New York and into the record books as the world's most explosive slugger and cultural luminary. Montville explores every aspect of the man, paying particular attention to the myths that have always surrounded him. Did he really hit the “called shot” homer in the 1932 World Series? Were his home runs really “the farthest balls ever hit” in countless ballparks around the country? Was he really part black—making him the first African American professional baseball superstar? And was Ruth the high-octane, womanizing, heavy-drinking “fatso” of legend . . . or just a boyish, rudderless quasi-orphan who did, in fact, take his training and personal conditioning quite seriously?

At a time when modern baseball is grappling with hyper-inflated salaries, free agency, and assorted controversies, The Big Bam brings back the pure glory days of the game. Leigh Montville operates at the peak of his abilities, exploring Babe Ruth in a way that intimately, and poignantly, illuminates a most remarkable figure.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - mybucketlistofbooks - LibraryThing

I enjoyed this quite a bit. I haven't read any other biographies on Babe Ruth, and haven't read a ton of sports biographies so I have little to compare it to. But, it does compare favorably with ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - phoenixcomet - LibraryThing

Every once in awhile I enjoy a sports biography. Babe Ruth is, by far, one of the most interesting, larger than life sports figures. Born at the tale end of the 19th century, abandoned to a boy's ... Read full review


Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 16
Section 17
Section 18
Section 19
Section 20
Section 21
Section 22
Section 23

Section 9
Section 10
Section 11
Section 12
Section 13
Section 14
Section 15
Section 24
Section 25
Section 26
Section 27
Section 28
Section 29

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About the author (2007)

Chapter One

The little boy and the man get on the Wilkens Avenue trolley on the morning of June 13, 1902. It is a Friday. They are off on a trip of great dimensions. Details are important but do not seem to be available. There is so much we want to know. There is so much we never will.

Is it really morning?

Or maybe early afternoon?

Probably not night.

The man and the boy take seats in the second row. Or maybe they are all the way in the back. The boy is on the outside so he can see the streets of Baltimore pass. Or maybe he is on the inside. Maybe he is looking at his shoes.

The jangle of nickels and pennies rolling through the conductor''s coin box is background noise. Wasn''t the coin box always background noise on a trolley? The ding-ding of the bell is heard when the trolley makes a stop. What is the weather? The Baltimore Sun predicted showers and cooler. Is it raining right now? Cool enough for a jacket? Don''t know. Can''t be sure.

The man is sad or resolute or perhaps secretly happy. The boy is . . . does he even know where he is going? Is the packed little suitcase on the seat next to him a clue? Or is there no suitcase? He is dressed in the best clothes that he owns. Or are there no best clothes? The conversation is quiet, short sentences, the man''s mind lost somewhere in the business of the moment. Or perhaps there is no conversation, not a word. Or perhaps there are laughs, the man talking and talking, joking, to take the edge away.


Imagination tries to build atop slim facts. The man is 31 years old. That is birth certificate truth. His wife is 28 years old. That is another birth certificate truth. Their first son, the boy, as recorded in the Office of the Registrar of Vital Statistics, Baltimore City, by midwife Minnie Graf, is seven years, three months, seven days old, except . . . except he will believe for most of his years that his birthday is one year and one day earlier.

Why is that?

The urge is to sketch in the rest of the picture, make judgments, add colors and emotions and maybe a passing billboard or two. Can it be resisted? The mother has kissed the boy good-bye at the front door of 426 West Camden Street, a tear rolling down her cheek. Or she has said nothing. Or she was relieved. Or maybe she wasn''t even there. The boy is sad, crying. Or he is mute, defiant. Or he is clueless and confident, always confident.

The biggest mysteries in the life of George Herman Ruth-and some researchers say Herman is his true middle name, handed down from his father, and some say it is his confirmation name-are front-loaded and frustrating. The topographic representations of most famous lives feature well-defined peaks of public achievement, brightly lit and easily seen, but a fog often settles over the personal life below. The fog here covers everything.


Babe Ruth?

Behind that moon face with those small eyes, that flat nose, those big lips that will be captured in any instantly recognizable portrait in a blue New York Yankees cap, the boy will forever hide. He is only a shape, glimpsed here, glimpsed there, lost again. No one has found that boy at the beginning of it all, touched him, gotten to know him. No one ever will. If the right questions ever were asked, the answers never were given. Time has finished the job. There is no one to talk to now. No one is around.

He will become the Sultan of Swat, the Bambino, the Big Bam, baseball royalty, the greatest home run hitter of his time or any time, a character as interesting as Einstein or Edison or Elvis or any other twentieth-century innovator or inventor, but he will never fill in the early blanks. Want to grow up to be Babe Ruth? He will never explain how to start.

The trolley ride with his father on that June day of 1902 will always be a bewilderment. The boy will say as a man only that he was "a bad kid." Not much more than that. He was seven years old. He was an only son. He was taken to that trolley because he was a seven-year-old bad kid? How bad could he have been? "Incorrigible" was a word that was used.

There are no stories of a mother, none-good or bad or madhouse crazy. There is one picture of her, a grainy shot, pulled from a group photo of a family reunion, her famous child in her lap. Her hair is up. Her high collar is buttoned. She is not smiling.
There are few stories of a father. He was a lightning-rod salesman and then the owner of a succession of taverns. He had an anger that coursed through him. Or so it seemed. The one famous picture of father and son, later in life, shows a beefy man, striped shirt, necktie, vest of a waiter. He has a cigar in his left hand, stands behind his bar. Christmas decorations hang from the ceiling. He would like to pour you a beer.

The environment can be stitched together from history books and memoirs of local writers, but it is a broad picture of turn-of-the-century Baltimore and a bad neighborhood and working-class woes. Stevedores, sailors, wagons, horses, the many-layered bustle of business-these are the backdrop in an area of alleys and cramped brick houses near the docks on the wrong side of Pratt Street, the downtown dividing line for class and economics.

The general neighborhood, which included the house of George Herman''s maternal grandmother at 216 Emory Street, where he was born, was called Pigtown. He is a boy from Pigtown. The name comes from the great herds of pigs, hundreds of pigs, that are run through the streets on a regular basis from the nearby stockyard to the nearby slaughterhouse. Residents, it is said, would open their basement windows and reach out and try to grab a passing, squealing potential Sunday dinner.

The specifics of family life are elusive. The father ran assorted taverns in the area, nine in one count, one after another, so the family moved often. The mother was pregnant much of the time, had eight children, including two sets of twins. Six of the children died early. She herself was dead of "exhaustion," the word on her death certificate, at age 39. The certificate also said she was a widow.

A widow?

That''s wrong.

Isn''t it?

The meager bits of information scrawled on forms and in ledgers by bored civil servants are pen-and-ink riddles as much as facts. The father was supposed to be Lutheran, the mother Catholic. They were married in a Baptist church. The boy supposedly was baptized Catholic, but 11 years later was baptized Catholic again. The word "convert" was written on the side of the official certificate. Why was that? Any mistakes made then are codified now, preserved as Paleolithic truth when found by armchair archaeologists.

The most spare anecdotes or one-liners are repeated with each succeeding retelling of the larger tale, gathering weight each time. They are repeated here. The grown-up boy supposedly told Chicago Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame that his father took him to the basement and beat him with a horsewhip. Another story mentioned a billiard cue. Another said his mother beat on him in frustration.

The image that clicks into place is an embattled household on the perforated edge of poverty. Alcohol fuels discord and noise. Volatility is the one constant of every day, the smallest situations ticking, ready to explode. Love and quiet are luxuries that can''t be afforded. Bills are always due. Frustrations sit in a pile that never will get smaller, life turned into existence. An unpleasant existence at that. The birth date for little George-if it is right-indicates that he was born seven months after his mother and father were married. What about that fact? Did his parents know? Was that why they were married in the first place?

Is any of this right?

A sister survived. Mary, called Mamie, was five years younger than little George. Or maybe six. She would live to be 91 years old, dying in 1992, but was of little help. She developed a mostly romanticized version of childhood, as many people do. Her parents were "in the restaurant business." Her brother was "a very big boy for his age, very good-hearted to everyone he met. He would get very angry at times, but it was soon forgotten."

She did say, "Mother was not a very well person." She didn''t elaborate on what sense of "well" she meant. Physical or mental? Or both? Didn''t say. At times she was at variance with things her brother said. He said he had an older brother, John, who died in a street fight. She said there was no older brother; George was the oldest. He also said their mother was a mix of Irish and English. Mamie said this was nonsense; their mother was German.

Research seems to back Mamie''s side. The mother, maiden name Katie Schaumberger, was the daughter of Pius and Anna Schaumberger. They both were born in Germany; then Katie was born in Maryland. The other side of the family also goes back eventually to Germany. George Ruth Sr.''s parents both were born in Maryland. There is dispute about where his grandparents were born, either in Germany or Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Dutch country. Pick one. If Bucks County is the choice, the great-great-grandparents were from Germany.

Added to the confusion are a couple of other names, "Erhardt" and "Gerhardt." These were names mentioned mostly by the boy, the son, in later years. He tried to explain, more than once, that Ruth was his real name, not Erhardt or Gerhardt. Who exactly thought his real name was Erhardt or G

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