Robert W. Creamer, author of exemplary baseball biographies, dies at 90

Robert W. Creamer, a sportswriter whose richly researched and graceful biographies of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel are considered two of the finest books ever written about baseball, died July 18 at a nursing home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was 90 and had prostate cancer, said his son Tom Creamer.

Mr. Creamer was in his 30s when he joined Sports Illustrated as a charter member of the magazine’s staff in 1954. His name remains on the magazine’s masthead 58 years later as a special contributor.

He wrote about horse racing and track and field, and he worked as an editor, but Mr. Creamer was best known as a baseball writer. He attended his first major league game in 1931 and as a boy remembered seeing Ruth — the larger-than-life slugger of the New York Yankees — launch titanic home runs.

In his biography, “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life,” Mr. Creamer sorted the facts of Ruth’s life from the many myths that grew around him. When it was published in 1974, the book was hailed by writer Roger Angell in the New York Times Book Review as “perhaps the best portrait yet . . . of an American sports hero.”

Mr. Creamer depicted Ruth, who grew up in Baltimore and died in 1948, as a man of gargantuan appetites for food, drink and women. But he also showed Ruth as a gifted athlete who, despite his reputation for hedonism, dominated his sport like no one else.

When Ruth retired in 1935 with 714 home runs, no other player had hit as many as 400. (Hank Aaron surpassed Ruth’s record in 1974, the same year Mr. Creamer’s biography was published.)

Mere numbers, however, do not fully capture the magic of Ruth — or of Mr. Creamer’s sensitive, elegantly written biography.

“If you like baseball,” he wrote in the book, “you remember the pretty things about the game — the individual moments of craftsmanship and, sometimes, artistry within the mathematical precision of three strikes, three outs, four balls, four bases, nine innings, nine men. Ruth, easing along at three-quarter speed in batting practice, stepping into the pitch, flicking the bat around, meeting the ball cleanly, cocking the bat back for the next pitch, is for me . . . the epitome of baseball, its ideal expression.”

The book’s stature has only grown with time. When Mr. Creamer published his 1984 biography of Stengel, the astute manager known for his comic malapropisms, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote, “Now it can be said that Creamer has written the two best American sports biographies.”

Stengel led the Yankees to seven World Series championships between 1949 and 1958 and later managed the hapless New York Mets. “I been in this game a hundred years,” Stengel said about his Mets, “but I see new ways to lose I never knew existed.”

In “Stengel: His Life and Times,” Mr. Creamer relished Stengel’s comedic qualities but also drew a canny comparison between the baseball manager and a fellow Missourian, writer Mark Twain:

“Both were thought of primarily as purveyors of humor yet both were intensely serious about their work, and both had a hard, almost brutal streak of reality in their makeup, coupled with a sarcastic cutting contempt for people who didn’t measure up.”

Mr. Creamer’s biographies of Ruth and Stengel are routinely cited on lists of the best books written about baseball.

When filmmaker Ken Burns made his documentary on the history of baseball, one of the first people he turned to was Mr. Creamer. Throughout the nine-part series, first broadcast in 1994, Mr. Creamer repeatedly appeared as an expert commentator on Ruth, Stengel and other facets of baseball history.

“He had a kind of grace and generosity that lit up the screen,” Burns said in an interview. “He had an understanding of baseball as metaphor, as a gift, as a perfectly legitimate way to gaze into the American experience.”

Robert Watts Creamer was born July 14, 1922, in Bronxville, N.Y., and spent most of his life in Tuckahoe, N.Y. His father worked in real estate.

Mr. Creamer attended Syracuse and Fordham universities in New York, leaving without a degree. He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and was wounded in combat.

He worked in advertising in New York City and for newspapers in Westchester County, N.Y., before writing articles on sports for Collier’s Encyclopedia in the early 1950s.

When he heard that Time Inc. was starting a sports magazine in 1954, “he called every single person he could think of in New York trying to get an interview,” his son Tom Creamer said. “And that worked.”

Michael McCambridge’s 1997 history of Sports Illustrated, “The Franchise,” described Mr. Creamer as “the best line editor at the magazine.”

Mr. Creamer retired from Sports Illustrated in 1985 but continued to contribute articles for many years. He collaborated on books with several baseball figures, including Mickey Mantle, umpire Jocko Conlan, broadcaster Red Barber and manager Ralph Houk.

In addition to his interest in sports, Mr. Creamer was, his son said, “a James Joyce expert” and an eager student of Colonial history. He was also a longtime member of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Mr. Creamer’s wife of 53 years, Margaret Schelz Creamer, died in 2001. Survivors include his companion, Barbara Easton of Saratoga Springs; and five children from his marriage, James R. Creamer of Boston, Tom Creamer of Downers Grove, Ill., John Creamer of Morristown, N.J., Ellen Sitron of Gloucester, Mass., and Robert A. Creamer of Hartsdale, N.Y.; a sister; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

In his 1991 book, “Baseball in ’41,” Mr. Creamer presented a personal account of the season that produced baseball’s last .400 hitter, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

“Whenever anyone does something marvelous, something truly admirable and endearing, other human beings feel a sense of pride and exaltation,” Mr. Creamer wrote about DiMaggio. “It gives us a vicarious sense of accomplishment. . . . When we applauded DiMaggio we were applauding ourselves.”

 
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