Children’s Author Matt Tavares on his new book: “Becoming Babe Ruth”

Babe Ruth Central recently connected with children’s author, Matt Tavares, whose latest book is about the Babe. Matt is also the author of the children’s books: “Henry Aaron’s Dream”, “There Goes Ted Williams”, as well as award-winning, “Helen’s Big World” about Helen Keller. “Becoming Babe Ruth” focuses primarily on Babe’s childhood in St. Mary’s and his ongoing appreciation and committment to St. Mary’s after he became a star in the big leagues.

"Becoming Babe Ruth" Book Cover

“Becoming Babe Ruth” Book Cover

We had the opportunity to ask Matt some questions related to his book, as well as his interest in the genre of children’s books, specifically baseball:

BRC: First of all, we wanted to congratulate you on 15 years of being a published children’s book author. It was February 13, 1998 when you got the news that your first book would be published by Candlewick Press. In addition to “Becoming Babe Ruth” which was released on Feb 12th, you’ve done a number of baseball books. Why is that a favorite subject? Want to share any secrets about other baseball books that you might want to do?

Thanks! I’m really lucky to be able to spend my days doing something I love to do. Yes, Becoming Babe Ruth is my sixth baseball book. I’ve done a few fiction picture books about baseball, and lately I’ve been doing more nonfiction, including three biographies of great baseball players- Henry Aaron’s Dream, There Goes Ted Williams, and my latest, Becoming Babe Ruth. Baseball is just something I’ve always loved. I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid, but I would read anything about baseball. I try to make books that I would have liked when I was a kid.

I think one thing that makes baseball such a great subject to write about is that within the subject of baseball, I can tell so many different kinds of stories. It’s been a part of America for so long, and it’s history is intertwined with American history. Through these amazing stories of Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams, kids can learn a bit about the civil rights movement, and about early twentieth century life, and the sacrifices people made during World World Two. Then there are all the stories surrounding the game, like the story of a kid going to his first big league ballgame, hoping to catch a foul ball. I love reading about baseball, which I think is why I keep coming up with more ideas for baseball books.

BRC: What is your motivation specifically for children’s books?

I first got into making children’s books for purely selfish reasons. I was in college, trying to figure out what I was going to do after I graduated. I loved to draw, and wanted to figure out some way I could make a living by drawing every day. At the time, I was really interested in drawing pictures that told stories. So for my big senior thesis project, I decided to write and illustrate a children’s book. I spent my whole senior year working on it. My pipe dream was for that book to get published, but I figured it would at least be something to show publishers when I was trying to get illustration jobs. That book did get published (Zachary’s Ball, Candlewick Press, 2000). Now, years later, I still love spending every day drawing, writing and painting, but I’m also motivated by the fact that I know that there are real kids out there who are going to read these books. Some of them might not be that interested (baseball biographies aren’t for everyone, I guess), but for some of them, this might be the book that really grabs them, and makes them want to read more books. It’s really a wonderful part of my job that I didn’t think about when I first got started. But now, that motivates me too.

BRC: You have also written a variety of books on notable figures (Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Helen Keller). What led you to focus on these particular individuals?

I’m mostly just looking for great stories, but also stories that I find inspirational, and stories I think kids will also be inspired by. And with the baseball books, one seems to lead to the next. When I was researching Hank Aaron and Ted Williams, Babe Ruth was mentioned at every turn- Ted Williams wanted to be better than The Babe. Hank Aaron chased, and broke, his home run record. Babe Ruth is so central to the entire history of baseball. The more I read about baseball, the more I wanted to do my own book about Babe Ruth.

BRC: In an interview we saw, you said you were influenced by baseball cards growing up. Did you collect them? Are there any that particularly stood out?

Yes, I was really into baseball cards in the late 1980’s. I used to dream of doing my own baseball card series, sort of like the Donruss Diamond Kings, or Vernon Wells’ artwork for Upper Deck. I would still like to do that some day. I still have all my cards from back then, but the real treasures of my collection are the cards my dad passed down to me, from when he was a kid. I have a couple Ted Williams cards (1951 Bowman and 1954 Topps), a Whitey Ford rookie card, a 1952 Topps Duke Snider… they’re all pretty amazing.

BRC: We’ve heard that your Dad used to tell you baseball stories when you were growing up. Did he ever tell you anything about Babe Ruth and, if so, what was it? What was your motivation for writing a book on the Babe, as well as the particular focus?

Mostly my dad told me about Ted Williams. He was born in 1942, so The Babe was before his time. I got the idea to make a book about Babe Ruth when I was working on There Goes Ted Williams. He is the single most important figure in the history of baseball, so once I started doing these baseball biographies, he just seemed like a natural subject for me to explore.

But there are already plenty of books about babe Ruth, and I only wanted to do my own Babe Ruth book if I could find some way to make a book that’s different from what’s already out there. I decided to focus on his early years, and tell the story of how he became Babe Ruth. Most people think about Babe Ruth as a larger-than-life, almost mythical character. I wanted to tell a story that showed him as a real person.

BRC: What kind of research did you do to write “Becoming Babe Ruth”? Did you find out anything that surprised you?

I read several books, and founds tons of old photographs. The Big Bam, by Leigh Montville, was great. So was The Life That Ruth Built, by Marshall Smelser, and Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, by Robert Creamer. I learned a lot about Babe Ruth that surprised me. First, I was surprised by how hard he worked to be great. I think people have this idea that he was just this freakish talent, who stuffed his face with hot dogs, drank beer, and hit home runs. But he practiced for countless hours, first at St. Mary’s under the guidance of Brother Matthias, then during his baseball career, when he was the first professional baseball player to have a personal trainer in the offseason. Yes, he was naturally gifted and strong, but he worked very hard to be the greatest baseball player he could be.

Before I started working on this book, I think I had this impression of Babe Ruth being more self-indulgent, and not someone who really cared about others. So I was surprised by how much he did for children. Everywhere he traveled, he visited countless orphanages and hospitals, bringing joy to kids in tough situations. He was a hero to these kids, because he was one of them. He knew what he meant to them, and he fully embraced the role.

BRC: How long did it take you to do “Becoming Babe Ruth”, including the research, illustrations and writing? What was the hardest part?

The whole thing took about 10 months or so. I think the hardest part was early on, when I was trying to get past all the myth/legend stuff and find the real story, the one about a kid named George whose parents sent him away to reform school when he was seven. Once I zeroed in on that kid, and on that part of his life, the story started to come together. I didn’t think the world needed another book telling about Babe Ruth calling his shot. But the story of his early years, and the role that his school and his teacher played in his life, seemed like a story worth telling.

BRC: Are there any adult or other Babe Ruth books that you particularly like? Why?

Yes, the few I mentioned earlier are all excellent. As a researcher, Marshall Smelser’s book might have been the most helpful, just chock full of information. The Big Bam, by Leigh Montville, is great too. And as a fan of baseball history, I really enjoyed Babe Ruth, by Julia Ruth Stevens and Bill Gilbert, which includes all these amazing realistic pieces of memorabilia that you can actually take out of the book and hold. Of all the nonfiction books I’ve done, the research for this one was relatively easy, because there have been so many good books written about Babe Ruth. Those biographers did all the heavy lifting!

BRC: What is your opinion of the Babe? What do you feel his impact was in Baseball and American Pop Culture?
I find Babe Ruth endlessly fascinating. I really loved working on this book, and learning everything I could about him. His impact on baseball is probably greater than any athlete on any sport (at least any sport I know about). Baseball was a different game after Babe Ruth came along. And he’s a permanent part of American pop culture. Even so many years after he played, he’s still so recognizable and iconic. And the word “Ruthian” is still used to describe anything great and powerful.

BRC: What are your thoughts on the Babe (as a player and as a person)?

As a player, there’s nobody like him. Just the fact that he was one of the elite pitchers in baseball early in his career, before becoming the game’s greatest slugger later on, makes him totally unique, as an all-around baseball player. As a person, I think he was very complicated, and probably did lots of things I would never do. But at his core, I think he was a good guy. He loved performing for people, and he wanted to make people happy. And even when he was a huge superstar, he always remained grateful to those who helped him become Babe Ruth. I think it would have been easy for him to just forget his past and enjoy being the biggest celebrity in America, but he always remembered where he came from, and he did everything he could to help kids in bad situations, just like he had been. I think that says more about who he was as a person than anything else

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