Sports Collectors Digest: Bob Creamer/Babe Ruth

By Marty Appel

The best baseball biography ever written, for my money, was BABE: The Legend Comes to Life, by Robert W. Creamer.

To me, that makes Bob Creamer the Babe Ruth of sports biographers.

On this I’m not alone. A lot of students of the game’s literature agree. Some also put his Casey Stengel biography right there in the top ten.

With attention soon to be focused on Ruth again, as Barry Bonds prepares to surpass his 714 home runs and move into second place behind Henry Aaron, I asked Bob recently whether the timing of his publication – 1974 – was related to that being the year in which Aaron passed Ruth.

“Only at the end, it was,” said Bob, now 82, still on top of his game. “I began the project in 1969, when no one was thinking Aaron had a chance. He was 35 and had just over 500 homers going into the season. Mostly, I just wanted to do a book on my own.”

Creamer, one of the founding fathers of Sports Illustrated, had four books to his credit, but all were collaborations. He had ghost written Mickey Mantle’s The Quality of Courage, done “as told to” works with broadcaster Red Barber and umpire Jocko Conlan, and combined with three other New York area sportswriters on a Yankee history book.

A note from editor Peter Schwed suggested a bio of Ruth. There had not been one of significance since his autobiography in 1948, the year of his death. And by the late ‘60s, writers were feeling a greater freedom to say more, and paint a bigger picture of sports figures. It was felt that a Ruth book, which tried to capture the plusses and the minuses, was due.

“Roger Kahn had done a great piece on Ruth in Esquire,” Creamer recalled. That was also an impetus. I’d seen Ruth play as a kid – never met him – but they played a lot of doubleheaders in those days, and you really had a pretty good chance of seeing him homer if you went to a doubleheader. So many of my Ruth memories were of those home runs.”

Ruth’s life was of course, a lot more complicated than those home runs. Yet, he was an uncomplicated man. He cared about pleasing himself, getting a laugh, eating his steak, misbehaving with the opposite sex, belching, and moving on.

“Everyone had a story about him, although I never did meet a woman who claimed to have slept with him,” says Creamer. “Would have liked to talk to one. I was with {teammate} Waite Hoyt, in the company’s of Babe’s lawyer, Paul Carey, and Hoyt said ‘“you think Babe loved Claire?’ And Carey said, ‘I don’t think he loved anybody.’ He meant the Babe was awfully self-centered. He did what he wanted to do, without thinking of others.”

An example would have been his mistreatment of diminutive Jackie Farrell, a pal who later worked for the Yankees and accompanied Babe on many of his personal appearances. Writes Creamer, “Before the dinner he began to fool with Jackie Farrell…. {Bud} Mulvey {part of the family that owned the Dodgers}, watched in distaste as Ruth playfully twisted Farrell’s arm. ‘Jackie was really in pain,’ Mulvey said, ‘and Ruth was roaring with laughter. I never could like him after that.’”

“On the other hand,” notes Creamer, “on impulse Ruth would do extraordinarily kind things for people he hardly knew.”

Creamer worked on his Underwood typewriter in the basement of his Tuckahoe, NY home, tacking notes on a bulletin board, trying to whittle the huge legend of Ruth down to life size. There was so much material.

The MacMillan Encyclopedia had just come out in ’69, and was a huge asset. “Waite Hoyt was great,” says Bob. “and Joe Dugan. They gave me so much. Claire Ruth was not very helpful. She was actually unpleasant.”

Writing when he could, tucking in time around his job at Sports Illustrated, he had produced 70,000 words – essentially a full book – and was only up to 1919, the year Ruth ended the Red Sox portion of his career. That’s when he realized he had to edit down what he had. “Peter Schwed was a very patient editor, but suddenly, Aaron was really threatening the Babe’s record, we heard that a couple of other Ruth books were being prepared, and now, by the summer of 1973, Simon and Schuster wanted it done.

“So I promised to have it done by the end of the summer, which in my mind was the Autumnal Equinox, not Labor Day. And I did it. I worked mornings, nights, and especially my Sports Illustrated ‘weekends’ of Tuesdays and Wednesdays.”

Creamer did an interview with the retired Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, a Ruth pal and ghostwriter who lived in nearby Bronxville. He related the story of a dying Ruth asking to see him.

“’Ford, I always wanted to see you.’ It was just a polite thing to say. I stayed a few minutes and left and I spoke to Claire again across the hall and then I went home and the next day he was dead.”

And that’s how Creamer ended the book. “Perfect. The end of his life. The end of the book. Done!”

The book came out in the summer of ’74, some months after Sports Illustrated had run a multi-part excerpt. While never quite a best seller, it was an immediate hit, and remains in print to this day as the definitive Ruth bio. It is not overstating the matter to call it a classic.

Now, a very sweet thing is happening. Leigh Montville, another SI alumnus who wrote the well-received Ted Williams biography this past year, is now taking on The Babe. It’s time again. And Creamer, one of the nicest men in his profession, is passing on material to Montville, just as Bob Considine, Ruth’s co-author of the ’48 autobiography, passed on his recollections to Creamer at the 21 Club and Toots Shor’s many years ago.