Saturday, December 29, 2018

Review: The Big Fella (2018)

By Jane Leavy

Think there's nothing more to be said at this point about the life and times of Babe Ruth?

Think again.

Jane Leavy has come up with a slightly unconventional look at the Babe in her book, "The Big Fella." It took more than a decade to write, and her attention to detail shows up on every page.

Obviously, if you don't know at least the basics of the life of Babe Ruth, you probably have stumbled on this website by accident. He was the first and might be the biggest star ever created in baseball and maybe in all of sports - someone who could attract a crowd simply by walking down the street. America could not get enough of him - to be fair, the reverse was also true.

Ruth was a man of large appetites, naturally. He ate big, lived big, partied big, spent big, swung big and hit big - daring to break conventional wisdom that said baseball should be played one base at a time. His 714 career home runs not only shattered every record in the category at the time, but represented a huge leap in imagination in what was possible on the baseball field.

Ruth benefited from a friendly media during his time, hoping to ride the slugger's coattails to fame and fortune. Most of the early writing about Babe was positive if not embellished to make him look better than he was. That changed starting in the early 1970s with Robert Creamer's classic biography. Others have followed; Leigh Montville, for example, was much more willing to tell the stories that his predecessors in biography shied away from writing.

That brings us to Leavy, the author who wrote acclaimed biographies of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle (the later is one of the best baseball biographies I've ever read). She soon realized that she needed to approach Ruth's story differently. Think of this as a clothesline. Each clothespin represents a stop on a tour that Ruth and Lou Gehrig took across the country after the 1927 World Series - a way to cash in on their fame. But hanging from the clothespin is a thorough and often fascinating look at some aspect of Ruth's life.

Need examples? Start with the Babe's childhood. Leavy found out in passing while interviewing a family member that his parents were divorced. Not many couples did that more than 100 years ago, and offers some insight into Ruth's future actions. She also talks about St. Mary's, the Baltimore boys home for troubled boys that was Babe's residence for most of his childhood. No, it wasn't an orphanage, a legend that keeps getting repeated.

Then there's his family life, which was as best complicated. Ruth's appetites extended to the fairer sex, as the old cliche goes, and he left his first wife for another woman. But the story is complicated by a long separation and by Ruth's continued determination not to take any of his wedding vows too seriously. Speaking of complicated, first wife Helen died in a house fire after splitting with Babe under odd circumstances.

A primary source of material for the book comes from Christy Walsh, the promoter of the cross-country tour and something of an agent/manager for Ruth during his glory days. He left a treasure trove of material behind about his dealings with Ruth. Mix that in with financial records from the Yankees saved from destruction in the 1970s and now safely placed in the Hall of Fame, and Leavy offers a good and previously unknown look at the Babe's finances. It's easy to conclude that Babe was in good hands with Walsh, as the agent made a lot of money for him and made sure he'd be relatively comfortable for the rest of his life through a trust fund.

A great many tiny pieces of information went into the book, no doubt painstakingly accumulated. All of this is helped by modern technology. Records buried in files for years are now available on the internet. Therefore, it only took a few mouse clicks for Leavy to discover Babe's parents were divorced. Creamer, who didn't know that fact, would have had to gone through every Baltimore newspaper in that era by hand to make the same discovery. She also talked to a variety of people, including plenty of grandchildren. It seems that an encounter with Babe Ruth was something that needed to be part of the family heritage, and thus was passed down.

Those who are looking for the basics on the life of Ruth should look elsewhere. "The Big Fella" is more of a second read on the subject, who remains part of the national conversation when it comes to baseball and sports stars in general. Those who can pick it up and read it - it checks in 620 pages including notes, etc. - will find it to be very worthwhile.

Five stars

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Review: The Pride of the Yankees (2017)

By Richard Sandomir

The first question you might have about the book, "The Pride of the Yankees," is a simple one.

Is this a book about movies, or is it about baseball?

To be fair, it's probably more about the movie on the life of Lou Gehrig that came out in 1942. But, there's certainly baseball involved in it, and I would bet that most baseball fans who have been around for a while probably seen it at least once - and maybe more. Even Red Sox fans feel like the room is getting a little dusty when they watch Gehrig's character say, "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Therefore, I think it's of interest to sports fans and gets included on this site.

Most baseball fans like to watch movies about their favorite sports. You can start a good-sized debate about the merits of such films as "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams," and "The Natural."

"Pride of the Yankees" is considered a very good movie. But, baseball fans, consider this fact: there is very little baseball in it. A few scenes contain action shots, but probably it's a smaller number than you think it is.

This keys in on the love story between Lou and Eleanor Gehrig, nicely cast with Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright in the starring roles. Cooper made a career in Hollywood out of playing strong, silent types, and Gehrig is a good fit here. That's a key point made by author Richard Sandomir, who reviews the film's history from start to finish here.

Cooper was an obvious choice for the role, according to everyone involved. That's in spite of the fact that not only did he have absolutely no baseball experience, but he was right-handed. That's a problem when you are trying to portray a left-handed first baseman. Cooper took six weeks of instruction from Lefty O'Doul, but that didn't replace a lifetime of interest in the game. So the baseball shots of Cooper are kept to a bare minimum. He's shown in some long shots, but major league Babe Herman was the one who was actually shown in such moments. A few other small portions of the film probably featured flipped negatives, so that the right-handed Cooper comes off as a lefty. Accounts differ on exactly how often that technique was used.

There is plenty of good background on all of the major players in the film. That starts at the top with Sam Goldwyn, the studio executive who knew nothing about baseball but knew a good story when he saw one. There are biographies of the stars and co-stars, and Eleanor Gehrig's role in the production is examined closely as well. There's also some digging into Lou's life; it seems that the relationship between Gehrig's wife and parents didn't have the Hollywood ending that was needed, so it was changed a bit.

Sandomir does his best work, though, with some research into the story. Movie scripts go through all sorts of changes before reaching the screen. The author was lucky enough to get a copy of the original script here, and had notes on how it was altered, and not altered, along the way. It's a fun look at the creative process in action.

Sandomir also uncovers a few facts in the film that don't quite match up with reality. They aren't major flaws, unless you are one of those baseball fans that insists that everything in a movie is historically accurate.

There's one necessary suggestion when it comes to reading the book. Go watch the movie. If you haven't seen it lately, go watch it again. Those who don't have it memorized at this point will enjoy the book much more if the scenes are fresh. Sandomir makes the point that the chemistry between Cooper and Wright really makes the movie work. They are totally believable as a happy couple, and it's easy for the audience to get swept along in their story.

Those who have no interest in the story obviously don't need to pick this up. But others will want to know more about "the making of ...", and this should work quite nicely for them. "The Pride of the Yankees" is a quick, interesting read about a film that will be watched for years to come, and deserves some applause of its own.

Four stars

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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2018

Edited by Jeff Pearlman 

I've been reviewing books in this series for several years, and reading them since its inception in 1991. They've all been good; I think there was only one that received less than a four-star rating.

It's with a little surprise, then, that I can say this offering of "The Best American Sports Writing" might be the one of the best of the entire bunch. I don't have the other 27 copies handy, but I feel rather confident in going that far.

That's because of the story selection. Jeff Pearlman is this year's editor, and he has selected stories that make a strong impact. Let's make that word stand out a little bit - impact.

It would be easy to guess that all of the stories that reach the "finals" in terms of inclusion in the book are well done, year after year. Then it becomes a matter of individual taste as to which articles turn up in the book, and which ones are left to the honorable mention portion of the book. It's easy to guess that Pearlman did a particularly good job of finding stories that hit readers hard in many cases.

Muhammad Ali can still fascinate us, even in death, thanks to Tom Junod's moment-by-moment description of his death and the timeline to his burial. Speaking of funerals, there are a bunch of them in the story of a plane crash of a South American soccer team from Sam Borden. Football head injuries receive a young face from Reid Forgrave. Steve Friedman profiles a woman who just can't stop running - and there are many answers to the "from what?" that lurk at the end of that sentence. You've never heard of boxer Ed "Bad Boy" Brown, but you'll find it tough to forget his story. The list goes on from there. Some certainly will say the dramatic side of sports and life is over-represented here, but the stories must be considered well done.

Still, not every story is a gut-punch. Wright Thompson is a regular in the series, and his look at basketball legend Pat Riley as someone not quite in the winter of his life is detailed and fascinating. We know Dave Kindred can make the phone book interesting, but mix him with someone like Lefty Driesell - speaking of a lion in winter - is fun and poignant. And how about Cody Decker, one of those minor league baseball lifers who is still trying to crack the big leagues on the wrong side of 30?

The percentage of readable, interesting stories wasn't quite perfect. One of the few that didn't work for me was David Roth's attack on the National Football League, "Downward Spiral." There's an argument to be made there, but it should have been more clear and more simple. But in the very next story in the book, Tyler Tynes comes through with "There Is No Escape from Politics." There's just as much rage there, but the argument is better. Tynes forces you to at least listen, which is crucial.

Pearlman obviously is on something of a role this year. His book on the United States Football League was terrific, and now he's here with a connection to another bit of reading in "Best American Sports Writing 2018." Time to bet on the lottery, Jeff. Don't miss this frequently fascinating anthology.

Five stars

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