Babe as Babe: Nobody does it better

This is one of those things that I would’ve written when I was sports columnist on deadline and hadn’t done any actual work and needed something fast to fill that slot on the left side of the page. And those were usually my favorite columns …

“Sue baseball? No, kid, that would be like suing the church.”

  • Williams Bendix as Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story

“I didn’t mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands.”

  • The real Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth was the Jesus of baseball: a hero born into rough and humble circumstances to become a superstar, the idol of millions, saving the game after the Black Sox Scandal, visiting sick kids at their bedsides, promising to hit home runs for them, performing baseball miracles, eventually falling from grace to become the target of fan and player derision, but suddenly rising from ignominious career death to triumphantly belt three home runs in his last day as a player, before dramatically removing himself from the lineup for the good of the team – nay, for the good of the Game. And as he lay dying, he volunteered to be a guinea pig and test a new serum that would likely kill him, or be used to save millions. He did it for us. The Babe. Thou shalt have no other gods before him.

That’s the Hollywood version, anyway.

Couldn’t sleep late last night, so I fired up the old Mac, and found The Babe Ruth Story on YouTube. Figured it would be timely, since I’d read something earlier in the day about this being the 100th anniversary season of the Babe’s big league debut. Hadn’t seen the movie in years, always enjoyed it, even though it might be the worst baseball biopic ever made. Is it the Plan Nine from Outer Space of baseball films, or the Babe Ruth of bad baseball films? Doesn’t matter. It’s too easy to pick this movie apart, since it’s mostly fiction that hit theatres a few minutes before the real Babe died from throat cancer. So, I’ll take the coward’s way out and just throw this movie into the mix for a quick and easy ranking of movie Babe Ruths.

The real Babe Ruth demonstrates his grip to the fake Babe Ruth, a considerably smaller William Bendix.

William Bendix, who played the Babe in The Babe Ruth Story is my personal favorite, for nostalgic reasons. I first saw the movie with my dad, who was a sucker for this kind of schmaltz. And it’s a fun movie to watch, with just the slightest hint of authenticity – Bendix was a Yankees batboy during Ruth’s prime years in the 1920s. In the movie, his over-the-top, obstinate pointing to outer space (as opposed to center field) before hitting the famous 1932 “called shot” home run against the Cubs in the World Series is hilarious. The pitch Bendix hits comes down like a slow-pitch softball floater, and his uppercut would have made Mike Tyson proud.

Half of the movie is spent in various hospitals or at various bedsides – an injured dog, a sick kid, a dead Miller Huggins, a dying Babe Ruth – plenty of opportunity for Babe to bare his soul against a backdrop of drippy music. Plus, there’s a drunk version of Ruth dressed as Santa Claus lurching into an orphanage so he can tell a bunch of kids about “the three bears that were all Chicago Cubs.” And he gets the girl. The filmmakers completely ignore Babe’s first marriage, which ended tragically (his estranged wife died in a fire), so the love story within the story is a contrived version of his relationship with Claire Hodgson (a North Georgia girl, by the way – I’ve seen her girlhood home, it’s right here in White County).

Goodman as Ruth. Tough to get around on the ball when your swing describes the Earth's orbit around the sun.
Goodman as Ruth. Tough to get around on the ball when your swing describes the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Honestly, I don’t remember much about the other Babe Ruth movies, so I’m completely unreliable as a critic of the films, but I remember the actors. Love John Goodman, but he was too fat to play the egg-shaped Ruth in The Babe (1992) in my opinion. He totally captured what I imagine Ruth’s character to have been like, but Goodman was about 40 when he played the Babe, and he looked 50, and his waistline looked like something that a moon might revolve around.

Stephen Lang, a chameleon of an actor, is about the same age as Goodman (both born in 1952, thank you IMDB), and played the lead in Babe Ruth, a 1991 TV movie, and probably the least-seen of the bunch. But you know, Lang really nailed it. The makeup people did a great job – he looked like Ruth, by God. He’s athletic. Plus, one thing I remember from the movie that stands out – Pete Rose plays Ty Cobb. If you can find this one, give it a look.

Stephen Lang calls his shot. Look at the terrific job they did on Ruthenizing his nose!
Stephen Lang calls his shot. Look at the terrific job they did on Ruthenizing his nose!

Even though he was the least seen, Lang might have been the best film Babe Ruth. But he wasn’t. The best was the Babe, who played himself in Pride of the Yankees, the Lou Gehrig story. Not surprisingly, Babe has the look and mannerisms of the Babe.

The Babe consoles "Lou Gehrig" (Gary Cooper playing the doomed first baseman in "Pride of the Yankees"). Ruth playing Ruth. Nails it.
The Babe consoles “Lou Gehrig” (Gary Cooper playing the doomed first baseman in “Pride of the Yankees”). Ruth playing Ruth. Nails it.

He’s certainly the most authentic. So, he wins. Of course, it isn’t nearly as interesting or exciting as watching Sophia Loren play Sophia Loren (dude, it’s Sophia Loren!). But, there’s no argument here: Babe Ruth is the Babe Ruth of actors who have played Babe Ruth, and he always will be.

There, I’ve called my shot.

One thought on “Babe as Babe: Nobody does it better

  1. Love it Jerry!

    As you said Goodman was obnoxious enough but not real enough and Lang was real but not so obnoxious. But in the all of all Ruth was Ruth and in that there is no doubt!!

    Again as always I enjoy your baseball pieces more than any. Not just because baseball is my love but so is the writings of the Grill!

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