Bethesda Interview: Jane Leavy
The best-selling author and former sportswriter talks about locker room interviews, a drunken Mickey Mantle, and why she spent eight years working on a book about Babe Ruth
Why did you choose Babe Ruth for a biography, given how many books about him already exist?
I set out to write a novel about the Babe in the 1990s because I thought that was the only way I could inhabit the caricature he had become. By the time I finished the Mantle book and was looking for a new project, the world had changed so radically in terms of technology and the digitization of previously unavailable source material—family archives and newspaper archives—I was able to make him real in fact. Finding that material kept me going.
You did 250 interviews for the Babe Ruth book. How did you know when to stop?
I never know when to stop. I’ve got people still calling me now wanting to contribute information. One of the hardest things in writing this book was finding an authentic voice for him. In other words, quotes and thoughts and emotions that were genuine—that sounded as if I could hear him. Documents I found recounting reports from the barnstorming tour [of the U.S.]helped a lot, as did his daughter Julia, who died in March.
And what was the most surprising thing about him?
His understanding of the barnstorming tour. He had a sense of marketing. Not only his value to the Yankees and to the league, but his perceptiveness that going out to the hinterlands to meet people who wouldn’t otherwise see or even hear a major league baseball game was good for the game.
Why does baseball still fascinate?
My generation…may be the last to appre-
ciate how the rhythm of baseball coincides with how the world unfolds. The lack of patience among the younger generations is a reflection of how quickly the world moves now. Of course, it is the most writerly of sports—its pace allows you to conjure words that stir the imagination.
And how will you next stir our imagination? What’s your next project?
Not a clue. Really. The Ruth book took me eight years. This was like constructing a giant mosaic out of shards of glass. I need a break. I will likely do another book, but whether it will be a baseball book, fiction or nonfiction I do not know.
What advice would you give a high school student who wants to be a sportswriter?
I would explain that the world I wrote about is gone. If your dream is to be another Red Smith, as mine was, I would simply say ‘fuhgeddaboudit.’ Because of the bottomless size of the internet, if you want to be in sports or write about it for a living there are probably more opportunities—as long as you understand you’re not going to be the next Red Smith, the next Shirley Povich, the next Tom Boswell.
Steve Goldstein is a freelance writer and editor and the former bureau chief in Moscow and in Washington, D.C., for The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Bethesda Interview is edited for length and clarity.