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Is baseball even capable of making superstars anymore?

·MLB columnist
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Early in her seminal Babe Ruth biography, “The Big Fella,” Jane Leavy, the gifted storyteller of bygone ballplayers, perfectly encapsulates his place at the intersection of America’s game, Americana and America today. The forebear of modern politicians and religious figures and actors and businessmen and musicians and authors and activists and scientists and artists – of everyone whose ubiquity saturates our lives – was a baseball player.

“Seventy years after his death,” Leavy writes, “Babe Ruth remains the lodestar of American fame.”

Nearly a century after the story begins – “On Oct. 10, 1927,” she writes, when Ruth “was the most famous man in America” – it’s hard to conceive of a baseball player being the most famous athlete in America, let alone the most famous person. And yet with a clever narrative that tells Ruth’s life story through the lens of his 21-city barnstorming tour with Lou Gehrig, Leavy doesn’t need to do any convincing that it’s true. The facts clearly support the premise.

“A happy confluence of factors – timing, technology, economics, personality, unprecedented skill and the fierce determination to exploit it full on and off the field – conspired to transform Ruth into what the New Yorker’s Roger Angell called ‘the model for modern celebrity,’ ” she writes, a canny nutshelling of fame’s recipe. Mind you, it’s not entirely formulaic; if it were, Major League Baseball, and every entity with a product to sell, would run the code ad infinitum.

Baseball’s difficulty in creating stars – not great players, of which it has an abundance, but players who permeate the zeitgeist – is among its greatest foibles heading into the 2019 season. Unintended though it may have been, Leavy’s detailed reconstruction of Ruth’s barnstorming tour that followed the ’27 Yankees World Series title, and her illumination of the puppeteer behind the marketing of Ruth, a genius named Christy Walsh, underscores baseball’s changed place in America.

The notion of a single baseball player, or even a group of the greatest baseball players, traveling the country, filling stadiums and generating story after front-page story for exhibition games is anachronistic. Baseball is coming off a World Series between two mega-market teams that scored among its lowest television ratings in 60-plus years or broadcasts, and while TV ratings are far from the only arbiter of popularity, their decline is another data point MLB consumes when asking itself: Where is this game going?

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In the 1920s, Babe Ruth wasn’t just the most famous baseball player, he was the most well-known person in all of America. (AP)
In the 1920s, Babe Ruth wasn’t just the most famous baseball player, he was the most well-known person in all of America. (AP)

This is the central question, too, in Rob Neyer’s new book, “Power Ball,” which is the latest in a well-trod oeuvre that includes Keith Law’s “Smart Baseball,” Brian Kenny’s “Ahead of the Curve,” Travis Sawchik’s “Big Data Baseball,” Russell Carleton’s “The Shift,” Jonah Keri’s “The Extra 2%” and, of course, the Babe Ruth of sabermetric baseball books, “Moneyball.”

More than its predecessors, Neyer’s book casts a dubious eye toward the evolution of baseball. By using a random Astros-A’s game in September 2017 as his backdrop, Neyer allows himself to address a panoply of topics, everything from pitch clocks to concussions, reliever use to weed use. Clearly frustrated by the state of the game – “Everything except homers and strikeouts is dying,” Neyer writes – he laments the effects of what he deems postmodern baseball. “All of which might well be conducive to winning,” he writes, “none of which make the games more entertaining for the common baseball fan.”

While not altogether original, the argument Neyer makes is compelling, and it runs in contrast to Leavy’s story in which an outsized character almost single-handedly drags a sport to its greatest levels of renown. There is no such person in baseball today. Even if there were, celebrity’s demands as almost a second job struggle to coexist with the atmosphere in baseball that discourages a player from showing the “fierce determination to exploit it full on and off the field” that Ruth held so dear.

Baseball is stuck, then, with a wicked pair of quandaries without a clear solution: How to make the players bigger and how to make the game better. It’s not clear whether this is a chicken-and-egg thing. If MLB somehow can figure out how to leverage players into stardom, does the game improve? Should MLB solve issues with the game itself, does the new-and-improved version suddenly draw more people and organically create stars?

Neyer’s solutions leave something to be desired, though his conviction and passion – his call to action – apexes at the end of the book, when the unintended consequences of what for so long he espoused becomes perfectly clear. He was a Bill James disciple and, for years, the sabermetric writer with by far the largest audience, at ESPN. It’s not that Neyer himself, or anyone who championed analytical thinking in baseball, wanted the game to reach this point. It’s that it did, and not pointing out the obvious would be obviating what he feels is his responsibility.

“Something is amiss,” Neyer writes. “Baseball no longer looks well.”

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Bryce Harper has all the tools to become baseball’s breakout superstar, but yet it hasn’t happened. (AP)
Bryce Harper has all the tools to become baseball’s breakout superstar, but yet it hasn’t happened. (AP)

There are nonetheless throughlines between the halcyon days of Babe Ruth and the baseball of today. Take the story of Johnny Sylvester. He was an 11-year-old boy who was hospitalized after a horse kicked him in the head. Ruth airmailed him a signed ball promising a home run – and then hit it. His follow-up letter vowed two home runs – and then he hit three.

Plenty of players offer performance promises today. When one comes true, it’s trumpeted far and wide. The stories usually end there. Ruth’s kept on. A few months later, he ran into an uncle of the boy to whom he’d sworn he would hit those home runs. The uncle thanked him for what he did for Johnny Sylvester. Ruth said: “Now who the hell is Johnny Sylvester?”

This was the Babe – a man of manifold flaws and faults who grew to be deified nonetheless. For that he could thank Christy Walsh, who is called the first sports agent but that’s because it’s the simplest way to capture what he did. The best way to describe Walsh was that he was the real-life version of The Wolf from “Pulp Fiction.”

When – not if – there was a problem in Babe Ruth’s life, Christy Walsh was there to solve it. He buried Ruth’s separation from his first wife. He dreamt up so much of what turned Ruth from man to legend. Ruth dressing up in military garb to catch a ball dropped from an airplane – that was all Walsh, who knew, Leavy writes, how to use “pure Americanism” to prey on a public eager to gobble it up.

Ruth was viral before virality existed. An entire page of the book covers Ruth’s nicknames – lastly “The Big Fella.” He was vast in every regard, from size to presence to outlandishness. In 1927, he had promised the Yankees’ owner, Jacob Ruppert, that he would hit 60 home runs. When he whacked the final one, which would set a record that lasted more than three decades, Ruth brayed: “Sixty! Count ’em, 60. Let’s see some other sonofabitch do that.”

The subtitle of Leavy’s book is “Babe Ruth and the World He Created,” and that world now pulsates in his image, even if the one in which he fashioned it cannot replicate it. This winter, two of the world’s best baseball players, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, are free agents at 26 years old. In a different time, they would be the biggest story in the sports world. Today, the very things about them that so behooved Ruth – that in other sports help make stars – simply don’t resonate in baseball.

Machado sloughed off attempts to vilify him during a postseason of hustle-free moments and allegations of dirty play, preferring to declare his innocence rather than embrace the any-press-is-good-press philosophy that guides modern celebrity. Harper never has been able to replicate LeBron James’ gilded path of wunderkind made great. Perhaps it’s baseball’s failing; perhaps it’s his.

Baseball’s institutional restrictor plate – the unwritten rules that discourage seeking individual recognition, as if it somehow besmirches teammates – prevents players from showing the bombast of Ruth. It’s impossible to imagine a modern player saying of any pitcher what Ruth did to the Los Angeles Times of Charlie Root, the pitcher of the final barnstorming game in 1927: “Tell the fans for me that I’ll hit two home runs off Root or be disappointed.”

He didn’t. They weren’t disappointed, though. Wrigley Field in Los Angeles was filled well beyond capacity Oct. 30, 1927. Buster Keaton, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks – they came out not just to see baseball but to see Ruth, to partake of this cult of personality he crated.

“Babe Ruth had more power than he knew,” Leavy writes. “He had the power to create a story that defied provable fact.”

The story Leavy tells defies instead the idea that baseball itself is incapable of making stars. It is a sport in need of plenty, yes, maybe its own Christy Walsh above all. But it is not fundamentally damaged. It simply must figure out how to better navigate a world it helped birth, one in which it owns the timing and technology and economics but needs the personality and skill and fierce determination to exploit in order to fulfill.

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