With spring training still weeks away, many fans are still catching up on their baseball literature. If fiction interests you, consider Lee Irby’s new novel, “7,000 Clams,”, a crime story about a bootlegger that features none other than the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth. I recently asked Irby, a history professor at Eckerd College, what drew him to writing the book.
Irby: One day at the library, I was doing research on what I thought would be a scholarly piece on the history of baseball in St. Petersburg. I decided it would be fun to delve into what the Yankees were up to when they hit town for the first time in 1925. In the St Pete Times I saw an article that mentioned Babe Ruth getting sued for $7,700 (I changed it to 7,000) by some bookies in NYC. The same story appeared in the New York Times; no Ruth bios mentioned it (that I found). I kept digging. During spring training in 1925, Ruth’s wife Helen came down to save the marriage (it didn’t work, they separated right after). He was drinking like a fish, sleeping around, and got pretty sick (he nearly died after he left spring training–The Belly Ache Heard Round the World). I figured all of that would work in a novel. I am a huge baseball fan. My father was a Yankees fan from the sticks of Virginia because my uncle, Red Irby, played shortstop in the Yankees farm system in the 1950s (he got to Triple A; he was good). Red, though, blew out his knee, drank and caroused, and yelled at his managers. Career over. Mine never got started. I loved the sport but couldn’t play it well.
BB: What kind of license did you take with the Ruth legend?
Irby: Very little, I hope. I tried to capture him, his spirit and his appetites, the best I could. I wanted a complete picture, warts and all. He was generous and selfish, larger than life and strangely childish. I followed him around through the St Pete Times. Everywhere he goes in my book, he went in real life during March 1925. The book climaxes at the running of the Babe Ruth Cup at Derby Lanes Dog Track. For his voice, I relied on his own book, Babe Ruth’s Own Book on Baseball, that was ghost written but probably from interviews with him. That helped with his cadence. It is a suspenseful tale that I imagined men and women would both like–I tried to put in everything but the kitchen sink. I spent four years writing it because I wanted the book to be well constructed. The plot twists and turns like a mystery; there is history for those who like it; a love story; hit men sent by Al Capone; and the Babe. I used slang from the Twenties so there are almost no “curse” words. I slaved over the details and sweated everything. The editor who bought the book at Doubleday, Jason Kaufman, was the editor for The Da Vinci Code, so I felt pretty good about my efforts. Lucky for me, Jason is a big Yankees and baseball fan.
Here’s an excerpt from “7,000 Clams,” which is being published by Doubleday. Enjoy.
By Lee Irby
The staircase cascades down to the platform like a black waterfall of steel and rivets. At the foot stand three porters wearing thin cotton jackets, no match for the stabbing cold that has tormented New York since Christmas. The last passengers of the southbound Dixie Flyer have boarded, men in long wool coats and ladies garbed in fur, headed off for pleasant weather elsewhere. The porters have loaded their considerable luggage, leather bags neatly packed with golfing britches, tennis togs, and foulard dresses, something for every occasion on their holidays in Hot Springs and Palm Beach.
“White folks be headed south,” says one porter in a rich baritone, “and black folks be headed north.” Heads bob in easy agreement; coins jangle restlessly in deep pockets, the tips garnered for loading the suitcases of the well-to-do. They’ve all made more in an hour at Pennsylvania Station than a sharecropper makes in a week.
Steel columns reach up to cambered arches that support the lattice of windows in the glass ceiling high above. Some days it seems like the arches hold up heaven itself, the way shafts of light shine down. But not today. The sun has disappeared, and as soon as this train departs, the porters will disappear too, back to a small room beneath the stairs where they can pretend to be warm for a few minutes, before the arrival of the 83 at 1:06.
A whistle sounds, shrieking through the station. “All aboard!” a conductor shouts, beefy hand cupped to mouth, eyes red and watery. Suddenly, bounding down the steel stairs comes a ticket clerk, spectacles pinched to a thin nose and in danger of flying off as he waves his arms wildly trying to get the conductor’s attention. “Wait, now! Hold the train! Hold the train!”
Somebody important must be on the Dixie Flyer, the porters decide, curious now as the spectacle unfolds. A few seconds later they see a huge man appear at the head of the stairs, surveying the platform below as a lord would his minions. He begins his descent at a leisurely pace, obviously in no hurry. He knows the world will wait for him, so there’s no reason to rush. He walks with a cocksure swagger, a great garish blue coat pulled tight against his massive chest. The wind has whisked a curly frock of black hair onto his forehead, giving the man a boyish look, the disheveled appearance of an untamed lad forced to put on his Sunday best. Behind him trails another hapless porter, struggling to carry the man’s mountain of luggage, including a set of brand-new golf clubs. At the foot of the stairs some sportswriters catch the big man, who stops and allows a photographer to snap off some shots, the bulb popping loudly like a small gun.
“Hey, Babe!” a reporter shouts. “How much you tipping the scales these days?”
“Counting my pecker?” The big man snickers, then reaches into his blue coat and pulls out a cigar. “Boys, I’ve never felt better in my life.” He pauses, lights his stogie, and immediately falls into a fit of coughing, which reddens his face. “The Yankees don’t pay me to model no swimming trunks. Hey kid!”
George Herman Ruth motions to a little boy hiding behind a column, calling him over to the impromptu news conference. The kid at first appears to be too stunned to move a muscle; he’s been tagging along ever since he saw the slugger out on Sixth Avenue. The kid’s eyes grow wide and somehow his body begins to go forward. The crowd of reporters parts to make way for the youngster. The Babe kneels down and puts his big, meaty arm around the child’s thin, small shoulders. The boy quakes as if palsied by the cold, so vivid and palpable is his excitement.
“Listen, kiddo,” the Babe sings, “how ’bout you taking this here sawbuck and going up to that Kraut selling wieners by the newsstand and picking up five for the Babe? Can you do that for me?”
The boy nods eagerly, eyes bugged in disbelief.
“Good. And run back as fast as you can.” With a final pat the boy scampers off, his little feet pattering against the steel steps as he hurries to the terminal. Ruth stands up, a bright smiled fixed on his lips. “The Babe gets hungry, he eats. He gets horny, he screws. You swing big, you live big. It ain’t as complicated as you make it sound, you dumb eggheads.”
The reporters laugh, as they usually do at Ruth, but they also know that the slugger doesn’t look especially well. He seems to be about thirty pounds overweight, and his face, jowly at the best of times, swells from a bloated chin. Every year he makes a pilgrimage to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to pull himself together before spring training starts in Florida, but this year he’ll have to redouble his efforts to get in condition. Can he do it? Can he continue to find success through excess, live like he doesn’t care about tomorrow only to seize the day and conquer? It doesn’t seem possible, but neither did hitting fifty homers in a season, a feat he’s already accomplished twice.
“How many homers this year, Babe?” a reporter calls out.
“A hundred. Hey, any of you scoffers ever been to St. Pete? What kind of burg is it anyway?”
“It’s swanky, Babe. Real swanky.”
“Is it wet?”
“All Florida is. So I hear.”
“All aboard!” the conductor shouts, as again the whistle splits the frigid air.
The smile quickly fades from the Babe’s face. “Where’d that kid go with my franks? And my ten smackers?” The reporters all wheel around; the staircase is empty. The kid is nowhere to be found.
“The hell with it!” Babe Ruth chuckles merrily, unperturbed by the grift. “And I was hungry too. They got food on these trains.” He gives a wave as he springs over to his Pullman car. “See you in St. Pete, boys!”
The reporters know Ruth was slapped with a paternity suit six months ago, although the case had been dropped. They know he consumes women and food with equal fervor and equal indiscrimination. They know he likes to spend time at the racetrack, where, when he won, he won big. Though he lost even bigger, and they know that, too, these reporters huddling at the train station on this cold winter day in February 1925. They know facts about the man, and facts are like stars, hovering above us in fixed constellations that guide our lives through eternal blackness.
“How long you give the bastard to live?” asks one wag as the train began to pull slowly away from the station.
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