"The Big Fella" by Jane Leavy, Harper, 656 pages, $32.50
There have been numerous books written about the enormous life of Babe Ruth (including one by this reviewer on his famous "called shot" homer in Wrigley Field). Jane Leavy, though, manages to mine new material in her wonderful book on the baseball legend, "The Big Fella." The author of best-selling biographies on Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, Leavy narrows her focus on Ruth's tumultuous childhood and a 1927 postseason barnstorming trip that shows how he helped create the template for athletes becoming celebrities in modern culture. Leavy provides stark contrast by weaving together chapters of the wild young George (his real name) with the still-wild adult Babe. She digs deep to get the compelling details of Ruth's highly dysfunctional family growing up in Baltimore. His mother was an alcoholic, and his father, George Sr., didn't have much interest in raising his son, eventually sending him off to an orphanage at age 7. His upbringing explains the reason for some of his legendary incorrigible behavior as a young star. After he hit a record 60 homers in 1927, Leavy re-creates how Ruth and teammate Lou Gehrig cashed in on their fame with an exhibition tour throughout the country. Leavy writes extensively about the mastermind of the trip, Ruth's business manager, Christy Walsh, who as sports' first agent completely changed the dynamic for future athletic superstars. Leavy explores other issues, including a chapter on why Ruth was subjected to racially charged taunts from opponents over rumors that he had African-American blood in his heritage. Ultimately, Leavy provides a different perspective of a man who consistently broke the mold in sports and society.
"City of Champions" by Hank Gola, Tatra, 465 pages, $27
On Christmas night in 1939, two high schools from widely different backgrounds met at the Orange Bowl in Miami to play in an improbable national championship game that had big-time connections running as deep as Franklin Roosevelt. Author Hank Gola's inspiration for the book came from growing up in Garfield, N.J., and hearing for decades about the local high school's famous team and game. Gola details the circumstances leading up to the showdown and how they were impacted by the nation's political climate on the eve of World War II. In fact, the game was conceived as a way to raise money to kick off Roosevelt's campaign to find a cure for polio, which was ravaging the country. Garfield, comprising sons of blue-collar immigrants, was selected by a group that included legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice to meet Miami High, made up of players from mostly thriving families in Florida's late '30 economic boom. This book has a "Friday Night Lights" element to it. With the NFL still in its infancy, Garfield played games attracting upward of 20,000 fans, as those teams filled the struggling town with an immense sense of pride. Garfield's best player, the wonderfully name Benny Babula, is a somewhat reluctant star who didn't enjoy the spotlight that came with his feats. Gola's book is a vivid read, showing how high school football brought together communities during a troubled time.
"The Prodigy" by John Feinstein, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pages, $17.99
The latest from prolific sports book author John Feinstein is a novel that serves a dual purpose. It allows him to vent about things he likes and dislikes about golf. Feinstein never liked Tiger Woods' father, Earl, writing numerous columns through the years alleging he went over the top in pushing his superstar son. So longtime Feinstein readers will be amused that the central character in the book is a 17-year-old golfing whiz, Frank Baker, who confronts a father and an agent bent on trying to cash in on his talents. What a coincidence: That mirrors the same dynamic when Woods turned pro at the age of 20. Feinstein creates a golf writer, Keith Forman, who tries to intervene in keeping Baker on the right track. It almost seems as if this is Feinstein's fantasy of what he might have done to influence a young Tiger Woods if he had had the opportunity. Feinstein's prodigy eventually works his way into contention at the Masters. He encounters many obstacles along the way, testing him on and off the course. That allows Feinstein to weigh in with critiques about Augusta National, the NCAA, various current players and other golf issues. He knows how to tell a good story, and he never is shy about offering his opinions.