In the Babe's own words?

John Goodspeed

July 20, 1992|By John Goodspeed

BABE RUTH'S OWN BOOK OF BASEBALL. By George Herman Ruth. University of Nebraska Press. 301 pages. Illustrated. $9.95 paperback.

SO FAR, this has been an exciting baseball season in Baltimore. And now, for fans who like to laugh now and again, how about this reprint of a 1928 book that purports to be the literary work of the greatest of all baseball players, George Herman Ruth Jr., Baltimore's own immortal Babe?

It's about as likely that Babe Ruth wrote this book himself as it is that his contemporary, Noel Coward, wrote it. The original edition listed no co-author "with" the Babe, noting only that the book was published "by arrangement with Christy Walsh," a sports writer and talent agent.

In the introduction to this new edition, however, a veteran Chicago sports writer, Jerome Holtzman, says that "more than likely, [Ford] Frick wrote "Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball." Frick was a top executive in organized baseball and considered an intellectual in the sporting world, but if he indeed did write this book in what he thought were Babe Ruth's own words, he was an intellectual with a tin ear. The prose includes no profanity, not even a "gosh," and in general makes the Bambino sound like a boy scout. There are no references, or even hints of, George Herman's gargantuan appetites for beer, women and hot dogs.

The voice in this quaint relic of a book sounds to me like the voice of an Edwardian, or maybe Victorian, gentleman trying to sound sporty. That might accurately describe Ford Frick or Christy Walsh or one of Walsh's stable of ghost writers, but it's ridiculous when represented as the voice of a Baltimore delinquent. The American slang that Babe Ruth surely spoke, the argot that prevailed in his father's saloon and on the streets just before World War I, has been fairly rendered in other baseball books -- in Ring Lardner's "You Know Me, Al," for example -- but it's nowhere to be seen in "Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball."

What we have instead is Babe Ruth as social critic:

"People sitting in the stands say, 'Oh well, if he wasn't a ballplayer, he'd probably be digging ditches or working on a farm.' That attitude has always struck me as most unfair. You know if Galli-Curci couldn't sing, she might be doing hard tasks ++ in her native land; if Booth Tarkington couldn't write books, he might be an Indiana farmer . . ."

Or Babe as (I kid you not) prohibitionist:

"A couple of generations ago the corner saloon was the hangout for the baseball crowd . . . But they don't do it any more . . . They learned long ago that it takes pretty careful living and pretty steady training to keep up with the parade."

All of which, coming from Babe Ruth the satyr and glutton, makes the book all the more amusing, especially since Paul Gallico, Robert Creamer and other subsequent authors have recorded the Sultan of Swat as he really was -- a mighty pitcher and slugger and drinker of the Roaring Twenties, the greatest New York Yankee of them all, a Hall of Fame hero who loved children and visited hospitals and signed autographs without charge but was in some respects not much of a role model.

The year the book was first published, 1928, was the year before the start of the Depression, five years before Prohibition was repealed, the season after Ruth hit 60 home runs, a time when Lou Gehrig was the only other absolutely immortal Yankee playing, a time before Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams and Roger Maris and, thanks to Jim Crow, a time before black athletes were allowed in the major leagues.

The Babe (or whoever) describes big-league pitching and hitting and fielding and base running and so on, but he wisely suggests that if you weren't born with natural baseball talent, nobody can teach it to you. Many a boy in many a generation might have avoided a lot of anguish and disappointment if he'd stopped trying to hit a curve and curled up instead with a good book.

"Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball" is not a good book in any literary sense, but it's a marvelous period piece, a souvenir of an era that was at once innocent and hypocritical. A copy of this edition is worth owning for the cover illustration alone -- a photo of the Babe in his glory years but touched up in color with what appears to be lipstick, eyeliner and face powder. That Bambino was some kidder!

John Goodspeed writes from Easton.

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