THE ONLY DIFFERENCE between bubblegum cards and most sports biographies is that after the season is over the cards can still be used as spoke attachments to give your bicycle a motorcycle inflection. Both genres rely on dry statistics, a boring anecdote and a posed glossy; although the sports scribe includes an over-abundance of all three items to pad his thin research.
Even the most rabid fans need a little fresh writing to help them get through a star's off-season tome. Sportswriters today generally rely on the excitement of pennant or cup fever to sell their books. The rare sports classic is the book that can be read when the players involved have finished their stretch drives and surrendered the headlines to the athletic endeavors of others.
The blame for the built-in obsolescence of hockey-writer Stan Fischler's recent Bobby Clarke and the Ferocious Flyers rests not so much with the Philadelphia Flyers's fortunes but with Fischler's own re-hashing of his old Sporting News columns and reluctance to look deeper into the subject:
Bobby Clarke's 63 total points marked a 17 point gain over the previous year and suggested that he would become a substantial scorer in years to come. The big thing, says Bobby, "is that my allround play improved as well as my statistics. But I cannot be satisfied. I don't think a player should be. Though I've learned a lot, I'm learning more every time out."
All the Superbowl ballyhoo in America couldn't camouflage sportswriters Hal Beck and Ben Olan's tired attempt to capture Pittsburgh Steeler star Joe Greene in Football Stars of 1974:
Ask Joe Greene what it's like to be a defensive tackle and his eyes light up. The sparkle tells you immediately that "Mean" Joe Greene enjoys his job. Thoroughly. "The tackles are coming on," says the huge Pittsburgh lineman who is called Mean, mostly because of his style, but also because it happens to rhyme with Greene.
NOWHERE IS UNCRITICAL, hackneyed writing more abundant than in the baseball biography. From Lou Gehrig; Boy of the Sandlots to The Jackie Jensen Story, diamond writers have a heritage of grinding out instant cliches. But no athlete has ever been subjected to more off-base Boswells than Babe Ruth. Occasionally, out of all those works claiming both authenticity and style, one will emerge which actually resurrects the Babe, making him much more than a candy bar or an overweight William Bendix. And Robert W. Creamer's Babe, the Legend Comes to Life does just that.
This Babe was one of a flurry of Ruth accounts spawned by Henry Aaron's home run chase. Baseball writers supplemented the wave of biographies with a deluge of column tonnage comparing the merits of the two sluggers. But when the season wound down, taking the coverage with it, Babe remained as one of the few pieces of baseball writing able to sustain the autumn sports onslaught.
Creamer, senior editor of Sports Illustrated, lets his concise magazine style explode over 400 pages of detailed but swift writing. He records Ruth's on-the-field endeavors with precision and color. He carefully avoids studding his sentences with cliched codewords like four-ply and three bagger. In an uncharacteristic feat of sportswriting, he makes heavy use of the English language:
...Ruth's full free swing was being copied more and more, and so was his type of bat, thinner in the handle and whippier, in principle something like a golf club. (Early in his career Ruth used a massive 52-ounce bat, but this slimmed down as Ruth himself ballooned.) Strategy and tactics changed. A strikeout heretofore had been something of a disgrace--reread "Casey at the Bat." A batter was supposed to protect the plate, get a piece of the ball, as in the cognate game of cricket. In Ruth's case, however, a strikeout was only a momentary, if melodramatic, setback. Protecting the plate declined in importance, along with the sacrifice and the steal. The big hit, the big inning, blossomed.
CREAMER ALSO excels in capturing the lore of Ruth out-of-uniform. In "Kaleidoscope: Personality of the Babe," Creamer delves into a few feats which make the 714 and 60 homerun marks pall. He dredged up some of Babe's stunning epicurean exploits, including the mandatory "couple of hotdogs and a bicarb" immediately preceding every game. And several locker room observers, provide the definitive statement on Ruth's famed sexual prowess. Creamer dwells on the theme of Ruth's distorted sexuality throughout the book, in his usual lucid style:
Everything about him reflected sexuality--the restless, roving energy; the aggressive skills; fastball pitching; home run hitting; the speed with which he drove cars; the loud rich voice; the insatiable appetite; the constant need to placate his mouth with food, drink, a cigar, chewing gum, anything...He received absolute physical joy from cards, golf, bowling, punching the bag, sex.
With a man as unbridled as Ruth and a legacy as clouded as the sensationalistic scribes of the day could make it, documentation becomes as important as imaginative writing. Creamer has compiled every scrap of information available, from the early Baltimore days to the Babe Ruth Days held for him as his retirement, dispelling a slew of misconceptions as he goes along. He has gotten comment from many of Ruth's mates from the bush leagues up through the majors and there are times when you think he had the whole 1927 Yankee team wired for sound.
But the elusive Ruth causes even the most thorough of his researchers to resort to historiography when it comes to the fabled "called shot," in the 1932 World Series. Did Babe really point to a spot over the fence in Wrigley Field's deep center and hit the ball precisely to that spot? Creamer comes up with 16 eyewitness accounts and five pages of detailed analysis undermining the credibility of many of the writers who inspired the myth. But he never clearly disproves that the Babe pre-designated the ball's path.
IN HIS PERSONAL life, Ruth could be self-indulgent to the point of childish cruelty. His excesses can be partly explained by his sudden claim to wealth and freedom after a strict orphanage upbringing. At times Creamer defends the Babe by pitting hospital appearances against callousness towards young fans, and interspersing charitable gestures with overwhelmingly wretched extravagance. But when he is through juggling, Ruth still comes out looking like something of a jerk. Sure, Creamer's case for Ruth as a great star is flawless, but in the end Creamer runs out of intimates confiding that Ruth really was the great man he was supposed to be. Ruth's life was colorful, but sportswriters blew it out of proportion. When he quipped that he deserved more money than Hoover in 1930 because he "had a better year than Hoover did" or when he addressed the president personally as "prezz" or when he failed to take his borderhouse-reach while sitting at the table of New York's swankiest, it made good copy. Ruth was a big man back-dropped by stiffs who made him look like a Colossus.
Creamer makes much of the disputes among Ruth and the owners and the commissioner of baseball. But for the most part these are boring encounters, with Ruth seeking pay raises while caring little for the rest of his teammates. No matter how hard Creamer tries to adjust Ruth's income, Babe's salary was a pittance compared to the Catfish-sized heists staged today. To make a legend out of a man's childish disrespect for authority only detracts from the truly staggering aspect of Ruth's life--his phenomenal contribution to baseball. It is the home run and not Ruth's antics or his gargantuan appetites that is synonymous with the name Babe.
ALTHOUGH CREAMER tries to make the legend a bit larger than life, not through exaggeration but through emphasis on what he believes to be startling revelations of the Babe's behavior, his work still stands as a model for sports biographies. Babe is no string of baseball articles linked together by some player-quote transitions.
Nor is it a composite of old statistics and sidline observations with an object lesson thrown in. Rather, it is a successful attempt to go beyond the post-game interviews into how the player really feels and how the public really sees its heroes.
It reflects poorly on sportswriting that Babe is one of the few sports books around that could stand up to the excitement of a Stanley Cup Series or a Superbowl. Maybe we should simply hope that someone surpasses Aaron's new record in the near future so we can see if any of Babe's charms rubbed off on Creamer's pressbox cohorts.