babe ruth was not a fat red sox: thoughts on historical fiction arising from dennis lehane's "the given day"

I recently read The Given Day, Dennis Lehane's novel about 1919 Boston, especially the Boston police strike, and the widescale rioting that followed.

The book is an engaging hybrid of historical fiction and noir crime thriller. It deals with labour history, racial bigotry in both Jim Crow states and Boston, radical political organizing, and the United States during World War I and on the eve of Prohibition. It's also full of great characters, plot twists, and suspense. If you enjoy historical fiction, I do recommend this book. However, I'm writing about it to highlight something that bothered me, and to try to analyze why.

The Given Day came to my attention through happy circumstance: the author used my partner's book Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox in his research. We were very excited to see Allan's name in the acknowledgments! (And because authors are listed alphabetically, Allan's name is listed right beside Howard Zinn's. Nice!)

I edited 1918, so I happen to know a lot about baseball in 1918, and especially about the young Babe Ruth, in his pre-Yankees days. That's why, when I began The Given Day, I was startled to read Babe Ruth described as fat.

When Babe Ruth played for the Red Sox, he was not fat. The Babe Ruth that is most known to the general public sported a beer belly and thin, scrawny legs. But the Babe Ruth who wore a Boston uniform, and held the record for consecutive scoreless World Series innings pitched, looked like this:

He was tall, slim, and in strapping good form. When he swung a bat, he looked like this:

In the time that The Given Day is set, the overweight Babe Ruth is years in the future.

I was so troubled by this error, that I almost put down the book. But I continued reading, and ended up enjoying it. Then, at the end of the novel, Lehane makes another error, again related to Babe Ruth, this one an often-repeated mistake: he writes that Ruth was traded to the Yankees. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee didn't trade Ruth to the New York Yankees. He sold his contract. In a trade, Ruth would have gone to the Yankees and Yankees players would have gone to the Red Sox. But Babe Ruth went to the Yankees in exchange for $125,000. That's not a trade. It's a sale. Again, I was so disappointed to see this.

Why do these minor details bother me so much?

In historical fiction, fictional characters come into contact with actual historical events, crossing paths with people who really lived. Through the fictional characters, the reader gets the ground-level view, the emotions, the human factor. And through the historical events, the reader gets the larger picture, the context, the backdrop.

When we read historical fiction, we expect certain indisputable facts to be portrayed accurately. How the Red Sox fared in 1918 and when the Volstead Act (Prohibition) took effect, for example, are indisputable facts. Even in fiction, those should be accurate. Indeed, the conventions of historical fiction demand that they are.

Similarly, we rely on the fictional portions of a historical novel to be plausible. In The Given Day, when the fictional character of Luther Lawrence, an African-American man, interacts with a white gas station owner in Oklahoma and with a corrupt member of the all-white Boston Police Department, those interactions must reflect the attitudes and conventions of 1919.

As readers, we rely on the author's research and retelling of historical events to be accurate, and we rely on the fictional portions of the book to be plausible relative to the time setting. We shouldn't see characters turning on the TV (or the radio) to get the latest Red Sox scores. We shouldn't see African-Americans hanging out in Boston Irish saloons. And we shouldn't see a fat Babe Ruth.

When I read Babe Ruth in 1918 described as fat, I thought, if Lehane has gotten this wrong, what else has he gotten wrong? Can I rely on the history in this historical fiction to be accurate?

I wanted to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Was there a reason he would describe Ruth as overweight? While Lehane was researching, he must have looked at photos of all his historical characters. It would have been easy to see that Babe Ruth, in 1918, was not fat. So was this a plot element, perhaps, or a device? As far as I could tell, it was merely description. That made me wonder why Lehane wouldn't purposely describe Babe's powerful, trim physique, since that may very well be different from what the reader expects, and could add a touch of interest.

The second error, at the end, is annoying, but less troubling to me. Perhaps some people describe any transaction where a team owner adds or subtracts a player as a trade. I don't know why people would do this, but perhaps they do. Perhaps in this instance, "trade" is used in some kind of generic sense. (If he was traded, who was he traded for? Who did the Red Sox get in return for Babe Ruth? The answer is no one: the owner received cash. Thus it was a not a trade.)

Other than The Given Day, I have no knowledge of the Boston police strike or the riots. I have no independent knowledge against which to truth-test the events recounted in Lehane's novel. Like most readers, I'm counting on Lehane to present the facts. I believe it's his obligation to do so, and what's more, I believe that Lehane sees it as his obligation, too. In the portion of the book with 1918 Ruth, all the other details are accurate, a heap of little facts gleaned from historical accounts: Ruth punching hats on the train, Ruth having left the team to play in Chester, Pennsylvania, his expensive gift from Harry Frazee, and so on. Why weave together all these actual events, but describe Ruth the way he looked 20 years later?

Everyone makes mistakes, for sure. It's not that I think Lehane made some kind of unforgivable breach or that this error ruins his very fine book. But once I saw that error, it was difficult to trust the rest.


Bill Nowlin said...

Such a shame that after he joined the Yankees, The Babe got so slovenly and all....

laura k said...

Such a shame that after he joined the Yankees, The Babe got so slovenly and all....


Hi Bill!

Amy said...

Great review---not only for the points about Babe Ruth, but for the more general points about historical fiction. I often love historical fiction, but I also know it's often unreliable as history. I agree that such writers have a responsibility to be as accurate about the actual facts as possible.

laura k said...

Thanks, Amy. I'm glad I managed to articulate something about the problem with the fat Babe Ruth, after it drove me nuts!