Sports Collectors Digest: Growing Up on Babe, Ty and Lou

By Marty Appel

I meet a lot of fans today who tell me the first baseball book they remember falling in love with was Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Those would be fans who are in their 40s now, or just about getting there.

Those in their 30s might tell you it was Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock’s The Bronx Zoo.

We baby boomers were of a more innocent time. There were three biographies we all seemed to read – The Babe Ruth Story, by Ruth with Bob Considine, The Tiger Wore Spikes, by John D. McCallum, and Lou Gehrig, A Quiet Hero, by Frank Graham.

These were three books we found compelling but not at all scandalous, books written with young readers in mind, and books we could do book reports over and over with. My friend Art Berke of Sports Illustrated loved The Tiger Wore Spikes. I was A Quiet Hero guy

Lou Gehrig, A Quiet Hero was published in 1942, the same year in which Paul Gallico published Lou Gehrig: Pride of the Yankees. Although A Quiet Hero had a much longer shelf life, became the book of choice for young readers, and stayed in print for decades, Gallico’s book however, was the one that was optioned for the movie of the same name, the one in which Gary Cooper played Gehrig. Gallico had better Hollywood connections, Graham’s book was the keeper.

Gallico was born in 1897, graduated from Columbia University, got knocked out by Jack Dempsey to research a column, and became sports editor of the New York Daily News. There he wrote a lively column and created the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament that still runs today. In 1938, he wrote A Farewell to Sport, became a fiction writer, moved to Europe, married four times, and ultimately settled in Antibes. Among his later books was Poseidon Adventure, which became a huge movie. He lived until 1976, long departed from the world of sports.

Graham, his rival as a Gehrig biographer, was born in Harlem in 1893. In 1915 he joined the sports staff of the Evening Sun and spent years covering the Yankees and Giants. A much beloved figure on the New York sports scene, he had a conversational tone to his reporting, which Red Smith said he originated. He let the athletes dominate his stories, unlike his contemporaries like Grantland Rice or Damon Runyan, who were more autobiographical in their coverage.

Graham did his Gehrig book with a young audience in mind. “The boy must grow big and strong,” his father said. “And he must have an education,” his mother said. “Yes, an education. He must work hard and study and learn to be …. What, Lou? What would you like to be?”

“An engineer,” the boy said.

We loved that stuff.

As best as I could research it, the book had 28 printings, which would have kept it lively and popular well into the 1950s, the prime baby boomer period.

Because Graham traveled with Gehrig for many years, some of the insight in the book remains fascinating.

How much did Lou know? Or guess? After his death, his wife, Eleanor said: “He never knew he was doomed. He thought, right up to the last few days, that he would get well.”

But on the next page, he writes of boys catching sight of Lou, waving and shouting to him “Good luck, Lou!”

Lou was walking with Rud Rennie of the Herald-Tribune. He waved to the boys and smiled broadly, and then, turning to Rennie, he said: “They’re wishing me luck…and I’m dying.”

Graham went on to write the three New York team histories for the Putnam series. He died in 1965, and went to the Hall of Fame as a Spink Award winner in 1971. (For a time, his son Frank Jr. carried out the family sportswriting tradition before he too pulled a “Gallico” and said farewell to sports, with a book called A Farewell to Heroes).

The first sentence of The Babe Ruth Story was “I was a bad kid.” It was an attention-getter. I bought this book with its dust jacket for 50 cents at a library discard sale about twenty years ago, but first read it in the ‘50s.

The book was published shortly before Ruth died in 1948, and it is rather remarkable to think that no one had talked him into an autobiography before then, not even his long time agent Christy Walsh or his ghostwriter, the future commissioner Ford Frick. The writing assignment for this went to Bob Considine, an all-purpose radio broadcaster, (“On the Line with Bob Considine!”) not necessarily associated with sports. But he was a high profile personality (appropriate for Ruth), who lived from 1907-1975. (One of his sons, Tim, became a featured Disney star and later an original star of My Three Sons).

Although the book was done while Ruth was fighting a losing battle to cancer, it concludes, “I’ve got to stick around a long, long time. For, above everything else, I want to be a part of and help the development of the greatest game God ever saw fit to let man invent – Baseball.

Ruth did attend the book party where Considine asked him to sign a personal copy, and where Ruth said, “sure, kid, what’s your name again?”

The Babe Ruth Story continues to appear in print now and then, most recently as a paperback edition in 1992, the year John Goodman starred in “The Babe,” on screen. John D. McCallum, born in 1924, and a graduate of Washington State, spent interview time with Cobb in 1955. He visited him in Lake Tahoe (McCallum lived in Tacoma)to do his work, although as Al Stump would later experience in preparing Cobb’s autobiography, Ty had a miserable personality and was frequently drunk. McCallum still gathered enough material for a book with an intriguing title. The Tiger Wore Spikes came out in 1956 and could not have been an easy project for McCallum, a seasoned writer. (McCallum gave it another try 20 years later when he wrote Ty Cobb He died in 1988).

Being in Cobb’s presence allowed such observations as this, from the book:

“Tyrus,” he wife interrupted, “what’s Coke selling for today?”

“Lessee,” Ty said, turning his attention back to the Journal. He ran his finger down the rows and rows of flyspeck columns. “Mmmmm, here it is….selling at 144. And with the hot weather still ahead, it should climb to 180 or more. Yes sir, a good solid stock.”

Ty never mentioned it, but Jimmy Powers, New York Daily News sports editor, once quoted him as saying he made more than $300,000 in baseball, ranging from $1800 he collected his first full season at Detroit, to $50,000 he received when the Tigers made him player-manager.”

In 1956, that was an impressive sentence.

And in the 1950s, these were all impressive books. Enough to make help shape our love for baseball.