by Jillian Fraker
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Jillian Fraker, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Jane Leavy about her book The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created (Harper Collins), which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2019 NBCC Awards.
Last week I had the great honor of interviewing Jane Leavy, New York Times bestselling author of Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood and the comic novel Squeeze Play, which Entertainment Weekly called, “the best novel ever written about baseball.” Her latest work--a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Awards in Biography--The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, is a marvelous feat of research and craft. We talked at a cafe in Manhattan exploring her unique creative process, her extensive career as a female sports reporter, and the archival matter that directed her approach to writing about Babe Ruth.
Jillian Fraker (JF): This book is dedicated to “Emma – Here’s Looking at You, Kid” can you tell us a little more about the dedication and what it means to you?
Jane Leavy (JL): Emma is my daughter. It needed to be something special between us, and that’s something we say every time we have a glass of wine together. It was really interesting to raise kids in Washington whose interests and talents are not those of the Washington culture. They were not made to be lawyers, doctors, lobbyists, and thieves. I’d like to think that being a writer – well I think it was probably intimidating to them, I know it was, gave a sense that at least there was another way to be in the world, they didn’t have to do the thing that everyone else was doing. Emma is a pastry chef, an artist with butter cream, she has this exquisite sensibility –(Jane got out her iPhone and scrolled through photos of Emma’s mouthwatering pastry creations). Emma started doing this with my mother. And Nick, my son, is an electrician and the only Jewish man on the planet that can fix absolutely everything. I mean he thinks with his hands, and I always knew that, even when he was a little boy…I hope that I wasn’t just intimidating, that there was some sense that there was another way to be in the world, that didn’t require going to Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
JF: In preparing for this interview I came across an article you wrote in the Spring of 1997 for an Issue of Sports Illustrated Women titled, “The Phallic Fallacy." “When I became a sportswriter in 1977, the unstated goal was to write lean, mean, macho prose. We couldn’t make ourselves invisible in the locker room, so we tried to make ourselves invisible in our writing...But the truth is, women in the locker room do see things differently–and I don’t mean anatomically. We come to sports with different assumptions and experiences. We are outsiders, which is what reporters are supposed to be. The femininity we sought to hide is actually our greatest asset, our X-ray vision.” I’m curious to hear more from you about the idea of being a woman being your greatest asset as a sportswriter, and if you could speak about how that relates to your latest biography.
JL: There are so many different kinds of stories. When you go to write a game story about an average baseball game that ends at 10:30pm and your job is to write 8 inches in newspaper type by 10:45pm, there’s not going to be anything different in what a male or female writer would say - an out is still an out, a double play is a double play, those are gender proof. And obviously, sometimes you just have to ask the who/what/where/when questions, that’s gender proof. The questions you may ask about the game, or somebody on the team, is where I think you start to see some of the differences.
But, I did believe and I still do believe that reporters are supposed to be outsiders.Women were definitely outsiders in the athletic culture, and made to feel like you were an outsider, and you could look at it as an advantage. There was a tendency for male sportswriters to show how much they knew. But I was the one who asked: “What was the pitch, what caused it to go wrong- that caused it to go 7 rows deep into the stands?” And players would notice that, and say to me, “you asked different questions.”
So you can look at it a few different ways. There were awful things that happened to me, but not as bad as what happened to other women, and I don’t mean to invalidate in any way what happened to them. But my first experience in the locker room was with the courtly, Phil Jackson. Phil set me up for expectations that were anything but dire:
It was my first assignment in a locker room. It was in the 70’s, and I went into the Knicks locker room to do reporting for a piece, on how jocks had gotten all prettified. It was for the New York Sunday News magazine. The editor, was also a former sports columnist for the News, and later became my editor at HarperCollins. He retired midway through this project so he didn’t edit it but was the acquiring editor, his name is David Hirshey.
I go into this locker room with David at the very end of the season and he leaves me there, and there I was standing in the middle of the room - not wanting to look up because I come to the wrong height with these people at 5 foot 1 inch. And this large white, wet, arm slowly circles me, and says, “Is this your first time?”
I look up and it’s Phil Jackson, just out of the shower, soaking wet and stark naked…and because I’m a nice Jewish girl from Long Island, I go, “Yes.” And he goes, “I just want you to know you’re doing really well.”
I had no idea what I was doing, much less doing well. And he goes away for a bit, and comes back, equally wet, white and wide, and says, “What are you doing here, anyway?” I explained the story I was working on and he went off again. Circling the perimeter of the room calling out to the rest of the players, he says, “Yo, You got some smells?” and this was to Jimmy McMillian, Bob McAdoo, Lonnie Shelton, and the ineffable "Earl the Pearl" Monroe - “Yo, you got some smells?” Pearl's sitting on a whole trunk of smells. He opens the trunk and Phil starts prancing around, spraying Pearl's smells, sniffing his wrists and sticking his hand in everybody's face. He's got shea butter and coconut butter and do-rags. Phil's filling the room with these smells.
By the way, the most frightening thing I saw in the locker room that day was not related to anybody’s junk, it was the size of Lonnie Shelton’s thighs. And then Phil looks at me and goes, “You got enough?” It was an incredible act of generosity and savvy. He knew what I needed for the story and he was going to make my first time as a reporter in a locker room, not only as easy as possible, but he gave me what reporters call: GOLD.
So, I didn’t have an introduction to the world that set me up for defensiveness or self-pity or fear, he created an expectation, that wasn’t always met, but was met more often than you’d think. Were there things that happened that were decidedly disgusting? Yes. But this experience was so unique that when I became a staff writer for the sports section at The Washington Post, I didn’t go into it expecting the worst.
So how does that translate into writing the biographies of Koufax, Mantle and The Babe? Clearly the biographies I’ve written of these three totemic souls are pretty idiosyncratic sports biographies, I wouldn’t have any interest in writing typical sports biographies. In each case there was a key person or interview that provided a unique insight that allowed me to go forward and informs each of the biographies. In the case of Koufax, it was his childhood friend Fred Wilpon, owner of the New York Mets, who explained to me that Sandy is a very Jewish being although not an observant Jew.
The conversation became sentimental when Leavy tributes her grandmother, who in the 50’s and 60’s thought it was perfectly okay for a little girl to love baseball instead of paper dolls. She hauled me and her child self into her memory and onto the CC train. Where she recalls the dress, the tights, and the Mary Janes’ that her grandmother picked out for her to wear on that old subway car during opening week at Yankee Stadium.
She didn’t catch a ball that day, instead she highlights catching her tights on the wicker subway car seats, in route to Saks Fifth Avenue – she slides a wad of tissue under the rims of her glasses as she reminisces about marching inside the department store. There was a female mannequin wearing a Yankee jersey and a baseball glove, a Sammy Esposito model.
“It took convincing, all of 30 seconds,” Jane says with a chuckle. 30 seconds for her grandmother to convince the clerk to sell the baseball mitt off the display. She leans back in the wooden café chair, inhaling familial vocals and mustering an allegorical tone, “I’ll have that for my granddaughter.”
JL: How to “unpack” all that with my grandmother? Here’s somebody who was as feminine and, I thought, as gorgeous a woman as there was. Brave because I’d see her shoot insulin into her thigh because she had type 2 diabetes. She was tough and strong. And she always had a tissue in her bra and always had a rose sachet on her dresser. And here she was taking me to the swankiest store she knew, because nothing was too good for me. To get me the baseball glove. She gave me permission to be who I was. Going to Yankee Stadium meant going to my grandmother’s and going to my grandmother’s meant being close to my Yankees. When she died all I had left was the Yankees.
I think with this biography about Babe Ruth it was actually very maternal. I knew from the get-go. I went back and looked at all the other biographies about Babe Ruth and saw that there was this large chasm. The first 20 years or so of his life were missing from every biography, and I knew (partly from accumulation of my reportorial training) - that isn’t a coincidence. There’s a reason it’s missing.
Some of that has to do with what sports writers didn’t and couldn’t write. It has to do with the culture of the Twenties, you didn’t have 60 minutes to go on and tell all. It was just not the style of the times. But my gut told me something was missing. I ached for that little boy inside The Big Fella and that was the guiding thing for me. To be abandoned, not once, but repeatedly - he must have felt so badly about himself, that he took in that he was a bad kid.I’m not saying a man couldn’t have that sense of compassion, but for me, it was maternal. I just kept wanting to hug that little boy.
JF: As a reader, I had that same reaction while I was reading this.
JL: I’m so happy to hear that.
JF: Do you have any advice for female writers in today’s world?
JL: Many decades ago, in response to a piece I sent her to read, a really good friend of mine sent me a letter (which i’ve kept) and wrote: trust your voice, you’re entitled to have a voice. So that might be the piece of advice I would give to female writers. A writer that informed my thinking about how to write would be Joan Didion - my Dad was an entertainment lawyer and he was her lawyer, and I met her when I was very young...we went to some Danish buffet place. I can still picture it - she was in a trench coat - we were sitting at a long table and the poor woman got stuck opposite me. I was thirteen and she was Joan Didion.
Joan’s sentences, the simplicity of so many of them, her use of fact as imagery, the importance of finding just the right word. God’s in the details...credibility is in the details. I spent so much time investigating the details for this book. In my years of being a reporter, in order to get the story, i’ve learned that it’s about giving people permission, just like my Grandmother gave me permission to be myself, it’s about giving them permission to tell their story in a way they can tell it - and it varies from person to person and interview to interview but that’s the advice.
JF: One of the interviews highlighted in this biography is one conducted by a 14 year old boy who you write, asked The Big Fella a question that no adult writer had ever thought to ask. He asked The Babe what he thought about in the batter’s box: “Well you’re all alone out there,” the Babe said. “You’re expected to belt it. You don’t want to let anybody down. But I don’t worry about how I’m going to hit. I don’t bother trying to outguess the field. I think about the pork chops I had the night before and if there should have been more salt in the barbecue sauce. The second the pitcher rears back everything goes out of my mind but the ball. What I see is the heart of it and that’s what I lean into.” You go on to write, “That insight, elicited by a boy from Brooklyn, was what I leaned on as I followed the ball from Ruth’s hand on the mound at Fenway Park to the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium, tracing the trajectory of a life that transformed Little George into the Big Fella.” Specifically, in connection to Ruth’s statement: What I see is the heart of it and that’s what I lean into. I’m curious to hear more about your unique experience of leaning on insight during your writing process.
JL: With this book I had to find that voice of Little George in archival matter. Baseball is the best thing to write because there are pauses. Because it’s not bang-bang-bang all the time. Baseball gives a writer, and imagination, room to write. This is predigital stuff - I read that line from the interview and I went, bingo! That’s it. The kid caught his omnipotence and his loneliness. What I took from that was that the baseball that he learned at St. Mary's, that he played morning noon and night - the dailiness of baseball: the pitch after pitch after pitch. The swing after swing after swing. For Babe Ruth, this left no room for regret, there was always another ball to throw. There was always another ball to hit. There was always another position to have to play. And to those confrontations in baseball: him against a ball as a batter, him as a pitcher against another batter. In the crucible of confrontation and concentration - he found a way to avoid lament.
JF: If you had an opportunity to ask The Big Fella a question, on the record, in person, right now, what would you ask?
Leavy: I’d ask him to tell me about his mother. I really fought for the details to be in this book. I have this need to destroy old myths, to not take the given as real. Parts of the myths for Babe Ruth were that as soon as he got out of St. Mary’s he ran amuck, that he supposedly ran amuck on the waterfront - where he never lived - went crazy with sex, booze, food and women. I think certainly later, when he realized what the world was throwing at his feet, he indulged and over indulged. But I think about him marrying Helen eight months after he got out of St. Mary's, and to me that was the heart string stuff, that his first instinct was to give himself a place at the table.
JF: Was there anything else in your life that aided your creative self throughout the years of insistent research and writing you spent creating this incredible biography?
Leavy: The only thing that really gave me any reprieve from writing about The Babe during the eight years was welding. Because it is the antithesis. You’re holding a rod with over 2,400 degrees of flame coming out of it and you can’t think about anything else. Because if you point it at the wrong thing or drop it or attach it to the wrong place, you could get hurt or someone else could get hurt. It is ultimately 2,400 degrees of concentration. You cannot think about anything else when you’re welding and therefore it was the most restful thing. It was exercising a different muscle, it was a break, and it was the only thing that blocked Babe Ruth!
I have a closet that’s full of odd pieces of metal that people leave at my front door. One Fall there was a big flea market, and this guy came up to me and goes, “these are the two best pieces of metal in the market.” I started laughing, but they were. And he asked, “You know what these were don’t you?” I stammered and he told me they were sailor’s awls - the things you would have in a boat if you needed to make a hole, and there were two of them - and they once belonged to an old famous sailing teacher’s school in Provincetown, MA. He took me sailing when I was ten and we got stuck for ten hours when the wind died. I had to have them. So they sat in the closet along with everything else.
And then last summer the day I arrived I opened the closet and took out a fire poker and a thing farmers used to dry corn husks and I put them together: a fish! I used these two old saw blades from somewhere else and they became the dorsal fins - and I constructed this fish sculpture.
It’s like writing. In a sense that sometimes you have pieces of information, a story, an anecdote, and you just can’t figure out how to make it fit - they start to feel like inanimate objects, like they’re stuck in concrete and they just don’t fit together. And then there will be a moment, often for me in the shower, where i’ll go, ahah! This is how they fit together and it suddenly makes sense.
JF: Thanks so much for your time today, Jane. This book was an incredible read. I wish you all the best.
Leavy: Thank you very much.
Jane Leavy, award-winning former sportswriter and feature writer for the Washington Post, is author of the New York Times bestsellers Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, and the comic novel Squeeze Play. She lives in Washington, D.C. and Truro, Massachusetts.
Jillian Fraker is a native of Nantucket Massachusetts. She holds a bachelor’s in English from Trinity College and minored in Community Action. In 2013, Jillian co-founded The Conor Gregory Foundation, a non-profit that supports underprivileged inner city youth. With that in mind, she began writing a monthly blog aimed at bringing together those affected by grief, unexpected loss and emotional trauma, a subject with which she is intimately acquainted. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, exploring food cultures, and surfing. Jillian is earning her MFA in nonfiction at The New School, where she is writing a memoir.