Eighty three years after his retirement, Babe Ruth remains the most dominating (relative to his time) athlete in American history. Even by most modern sabremetrics he is still considered the best baseball player since the professional game became organized into leagues in 1871. Matching his prodigious on the field accomplishments with a gargantuan personality and that distinctive face makes him instantly recognizable to most Americans today.
Bob Cousy, The Houdini of the Hardwood, was the first superstar of the National Basketball Association, famous for introducing an uptempo and flashy style, featuring incredible dribbling and behind the back and no-look passing. He's credited with saving the NBA. And once teamed with center Bill Russell, Cooz's Celtics won six NBA titles in seven years. Unlike Ruth, off the field Cousy lived a fairly normal life, and today, unless you are a Bostonian or a hardcore NBA aficionado, he's mostly forgotten. Here's a reminder:
Both are the subject of new biographies and the differences in their lives and in the nature of the information available to the authors makes for two very different books.
Jane Leavy, author of one of the finest sports bios I've read, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, and of The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, which though well-written and researched is because of Mantle's wasted talent and what Mickey felt at the end was his wasted life, has now produced The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created.
The challenge in writing a Ruth biography is how to come up with something new. There are already many, many biographies of the Sultan of Swat, including best selling recent ones like Leigh Montville's The Big Bam (2007) and Robert Creamer's Babe: The Legend Comes To Life (1992), along with more specialized studies like Breaking Babe Ruth: Baseball's Campaign Against Its Biggest Star (2018) by Edmund F Wehrle, and The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs (2007) by Bill Jenkinson (if you love Ruth and baseball get this fun book). Moreover, Ruth died 70 years ago and none of his contemporaries are alive to be interviewed.
Leavy's solution is to, for the most part, eschew the details of Babe's baseball career. Her book contains no breathless recounting of the Colossus of Clout's "Greatest Hits", nor a chronological accounting of each season. Want to know how and why Babe was a great pitcher before becoming a full time outfielder? This book won't tell you. Want to understand the possible reasons for his incredible hitting feats? Again, this is not the book.
What Leavey concentrates on is the books subtitle; "the world he created", by which she means the world of sports management and entertainment. The Babe was the first team sports figure to become a nationwide media sensation. He was also the first to hire a full time manager to promote and manage his finances, in the person of Christy Walsh who Leavey devotes considerable attention to. It's that side of the Babe, more than what happens on the field, that dominates The Big Fella.
Along the way, the author also provides the best account of Babe's childhood, dispelling some of the myths of his upbringing in Baltimore and his childhood, mostly spent at St Marys Industrial School for Boys where he came under the tutelage of Brother Matthias, of whom Creamer, in his biography wrote:
"Ruth revered Brother Matthias ... which is remarkable, considering that Matthias was in charge of making boys behave and that Ruth was one of the great natural misbehavers of all time. ... George Ruth caught Brother Matthias' attention early, and the calm, considerable attention the big man gave the young hellraiser from the waterfront struck a spark of response in the boy's soul ... "The Babe's real family was a nightmare, with four of his five siblings dying prematurely (an abnormal rate even for those times), a mother who was alcoholic, didn't show her son affection, and was divorced by his father because of alleged infidelity, and a father who ran a saloon and was killed in a street fight when Babe was a young player with the Boston Red Sox.
Leavy reaffirms that the Babe we've heard about who unstintingly gave of his time to charities and impoverished children was the real thing, and she writes well on racial matters. Because of his appearance, the Babe was often taunted by other players and fans as being at least part Negro (which Leavy establishes is not true), but Babe also seems to have been without prejudice himself, a rarity for the time, visited Negro orphanages despite the cautions of others, liked barnstorming with and playing against Negro Leaguers, and would have been fine with integrating baseball.
The Big Fella is a very good and informative book, but lacks the baseball detail and emotional resonance that might have made it the equivalent of Leavy's Koufax biography.
When Gary Pomerantz began work on the book that became The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End, he wasn't intending to write a biography of Bob Cousy, which is what The Last Pass is, despite the ambiguity of its title. He planned to write a book on the great Celtics dynasty of 1957-69 when they won the NBA title 11 times in 13 years, a companion piece to his prior book, Their's Life's Work, about the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty of the 1970s. Unlike Leavy, most of the principals in the Celtics story were still alive as were many of their competitors, members of the media who covered the team, and family, and several of those who had already passed had been interviewed by Pomerantz for an earlier book project.
It was only after his first interview with Cousy in 2015 that Pomerantz realized his book should focus on the 6'1" guard who captained the Celtics from 1951 to 1963. Eventually, the author conducted 53 interviews with Cousy, many extending over several hours,
The Cousy who emerges from Pomerantz's well-crafted book, is introspective, intense, intelligent, a voracious reader, and decent man, who at 90 years of age still questions his life and his actions. The result is a fine, thought-provoking and, at times, moving biography I rate up with Leavy's Sandy Koufax. It's also a meditation on the aging process, as Cousy talks about panic attacks at nighttime and physical frailty and the loss of his beloved wife of 63 years, who suffered from dementia in her final decade; Pomerantz describes Cousy's large home in Worcester, MA, as a virtual shrine to Missie Cousy.
The Last Pass touches on all of the biographical way stations; Cousy, the only child of French immigrants, raised in struggling circumstances in New York City, watching as his mother regularly hit his father who never retaliated. Finding refuge in the world of basketball he obtained a scholarship to Holy Cross College in Worcester, and eventually ended up on the struggling Celtics franchise of the early 1950s, under coach Red Auerbach, who plays a prominent role in The Last Pass. And how could it be otherwise since Red is one of the most unique and entertaining characters in American sports? And it gives you a good flavor for Cousy's game style and career. We also hear and learn about his teammates, Bill Sharman, Satch Sanders, Frank Ramsey, Jim Loscutoff and, of course, Tommy Heinsohn - Gunner Tommy, running into the locker room at halftime to smoke as many cigarettes as he can before the second half, carousing much of the rest of the time and then quietly sitting in his hotel room painting with watercolors.
The raw and ramshackle early NBA is fun to hear about it, though maybe it wasn't so much for the players. The Celtics locker room in the Boston Garden had a hook on a wall upon which the players could hang their clothes during the game while an attendant came round with a bag into which the players placed their wallets and valuables. The bag was stored under the bench during the game! Cousy organized of the players union which extracted from the owners the first improvement in working conditions.
The story reaches its peak with the relationship between Cousy and Bill Russell or, more precisely, in Cousy's attempt to make sense of that relationship and his guilt as he's gotten older over not doing more to support Russell, the first black NBA star and the greatest winner in sports history, with 11 championships in his 13 seasons as a player and then as the first black player-coach in professional sports, on racial issues during his troubled time in Boston.
(Cousy & Russell hug after Cooz's last game in 1963)
Cousy was not overcoming any prejudice. In his early years with the Celtics he roomed with Chuck Cooper, the first black ever drafted by an NBA team. He and Chuck went out to jazz clubs together and became life long friends. But Cooper, like Cousy, was a quiet guy.
Bill Russell was another matter. Joining the Celtics in 1957, the 6'10" center was a transformational player with his defense, rebounding, and outlet passing. If LeBron James is the best NBA player since 2000, and Michael Jordon #1 between 1975 and 2000, Russell was the best during the NBA's first 25 years. He was also very smart, very proud, very sensitive, not willing to quietly suffer racial mistreatment, unapproachable at times (refusing to sign autographs) and with a personality that could change abruptly from gregarious to closed and wary. Auerbach once remarked, "The real Russell is a very difficult man to know, but one worth knowing". I also learned that, surprisingly, one of Russell's biggest fans was Ty Cobb who praised Russell as Boston sportswriters as the greatest money player of any professional athlete he had ever known, "other than myself".
During the late 50s and into the 60s, Bill Russell was outspoken on issues of racial justice both in American society in general, and Boston specifically - and the issues he spoke out on deserved to be addressed. Russell suffered personally for it with numerous incidents of vandalism, and some truly disgusting acts, at his home in the Boston suburbs. Those events scarred him, leading him to insist for decades that he played for the Celtics, not the city of Boston, once saying, "I'd rather be in jail in Sacramento than be mayor of Boston."
Cousy and Russell respected each other, played together seamlessly, and never had any personal conflict. But they were not close, making even more surprising the often-reserved Russell's gracious words for Cousy on his retirement:
Cousy is outstanding. We see each other as brothers not as great athletes. Cousy, just by being himself, has given me so much . . . You never got the impression - 'This is Bob Cousy . . . [and] this is the rest of the team . . . You meet a Cousy not once in a month, but once in a lifetime. Bob Cousy has made playing with the Celtics one of the most gratifying things in my life . . . Like the guy [at Bob Cousy Day] said, 'We all love you, Cooz,' and we really do.Russell and his wife also presented the Cousys with a bronze desk clock with the engraved inscription; May The Next Seventy Be A Pleasant As The Last Seven, From The Russells To the Cousys. It was the only retirement gift he received from a teammate.
For many years Cousy has wished he had a better relationship with Russell. He has stayed in touch with many of his former teammates, black and white, but has only occasionally run into Russell and has continually played over the events of those years in an effort to figure out what went wrong (Russell would still occasionally call his white teammate Heinsohn and tell him "You are one of the few people I still like"). It finally broke to the surface in 2001 when Cousy did an interview with ESPN for a documentary on Russell. Asked about racial issues, Cousy said:
"We could've done more to ease his pain and make him feel more comfortable. I should've been much more sensitive to Russell's anguish in those days. We'd talk - uh . . ."And then Cousy broke down weeping. Later, he reflected on his relationship with Russell. After having friendships with Boston's first black players:
"Then I run into literally my first angry black man. And Russ to this day is angry. It's obvious from the get-go, and now in my Psych 101 analysis, I think this simply scared me off. I still think it was my fault. I'm six years older, I'm the Man. I'm in charge. I'm the captain. It was my responsibility to reach out, but it intimidates me for whatever reason. I don't know how to deal with this. Like so many times in life, when we are unsure, or stumbling, and doing the wrong thing in establishing a relationship, I do nothing. Obviously nothing is not good enough. At the end of the day, Russ doesn't know how to take me, and I don't know how to take him. We don't have any confrontation. We get along, but it's like a couple that decides to stay together for the sake of the kids, you know?"The Russell relationship was something Cousy returned to time and time again in his interviews with Pomerantz, and the author relates Cousy's attempts through teammates and others to reach out to Russell. To find out what happens read The Last Pass. This book will stay with you after you finish.