Robert W. Creamer dies at 90: Babe Ruth’s biographer, Sports Ilustrated founder

David Brown
July 19, 2012

If watching Ken Burns' "Baseball" back in 1994 was any way to tell, Robert W. Creamer seemed like a delightful man. Grandfatherly even that long ago, soft-spoken but obviously deeply knowledgeable about baseball, Creamer helped to write and narrate Burns' noted documentary. He was like anyone's grandfather talking about baseball. Watching Creamer could have been, and should have been, a good entry point for a young baseball fan to read other Creamer works, notably his Babe Ruth biography from 1974. Sadly, for me, it hasn't happened yet — and it's my loss.

Just like it's the world's loss upon learning of Creamer's death Wednesday at age 90. He was a giant, like David Halberstam or Roger Kahn or Roger Angell. Writer Jack McCallum remembers his friend and mentor as such in a neat memoir.

Creamer helped create Sports Illustrated, starting with the magazine from day one in 1954, and he wrote what many believe is the definitive biography of Ruth's life. He also was called upon to add his perspective to several ESPN biographies. His first baseball game as a fan came at age 9 at the Polo Grounds between the Dodgers and Giants, and he identified himself as a New York Mets fan as an adult. The best ballplayer he ever covered, Creamer said, was Willie Mays.

In a fantastic interview with Graham Womack posted in January at Baseball: Past and Present, Creamer was asked if baseball still was the country's pastime:

No. It's our spectator sport and I think possibly still our biggest spectator sport, and we love to read about it and talk about it and watch it on TV but nobody PLAYS baseball anymore. Softball, yes, but today everybody plays basketball or touch football whereas a century ago EVERYBODY played baseball. If you can find an old newspaper file from around 1912, ten years before I was born, look at the coverage of games on Saturdays and particularly Sundays — dozens of games, club teams, neighborhood teams, small town teams, political clubs, social clubs. It's astonishing.

Which led him to this anecdote about his favorite baseball memory, when a conversation with his grandfather made Creamer realize what else they had in common other than genes:

I remember when I was about nine around 1930 being in our backyard with my grumpy old grandfather. I was throwing a rubber ball against the back of our neighbors' garage and trying to field it. Suddenly Pop asked me "You like baseball?" I said "Sure!" He said "What position do you play?" I said,"Shortstop," which was simply a nine-year-old's dream back before Little League and organized kids sports. He said, "I used to play shortstop," and I was astonished. This cranky old man had played baseball? Had played shortstop?

[S]ome time later the local daily ran a sentimental Look-Back issue, reprinting pages from an 1890 newspaper, and there was a story about the Mt. Vernon All-Stars beating the Wakefield 200, and there in the boxscore was my grandfather's name — Fred Watts, ss. — and he had a hit! And my uncle John Brett played right field. It wasn't until years later that I realized it must've been a picnic-type game for a barrel of beer, but for a kid, seeing his grandfather's name in the newspaper playing shortstop for the "Stars"— that was a thrill I still remember.

I'll bet Creamer wrote so long and so well because he was able to turn his personal experience into something with which anyone else could identify. Now, to get to reading "Babe: The Legend Comes To Life."

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