Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Movies Can't Play Ball with the Babe

My apologies for the week-long delay at writing this blog. I've been way too involved with the start of baseball season;  in my other life, I am a huge, self-confessed baseball geek, even though the teams I follow normally are as low-lying as the opened Bazooka wrappers on the floors of the team dugouts.

So to commemorate my return to pop-culture blogging, I thought I'd talk about the biggest baseball star of all time: Babe Ruth. One of the most colorful, charismatic baseball players of any era, his prodigious personality helped save baseball in the 1920s as much as did his powerful home runs. He ushered in the modern game and got baseball out of the more-plodding deadball era.

But why movies can't capture that magic is a total mystery. But there have been two laughable attempts, both of which sanitize the Babe and keep the real story hidden behind the curtains of fame.

The Babe Ruth Story (1948)

This is the gold standard of bad baseball movies, one that review site Rotten Tomatoes calls "The Plan 9 of Outer Space" of baseball movies, so christened because it rivals one of the most-watchable worst films of all time. In this case, there is comic gold in all the inaccuracies at work here. Let us name a few of them:

The Babe (played by William Bendix) is a lovable galoot with a supportive wife and a mentor who never ages a day between 1914 and 1948. It is never mentioned that the meek wife is the product of Babe's second marriage, after he left Wife #1 and his daughter behind to marry his showgirl lover. This ultra-glowing biopic is full of too many flaws to name: Among the most egregious is the depiction of the Ballantine Beer sign at Yankee Stadium --- during the Prohibition era, when alcohol was outlawed.

And then you have the inspiring finale, when the Babe tells a sick kid in the hospital that he will hit a home run for him that day in the 1932 World Series. The maudlin story actually took flight in 1927, five years before.

Here's a cornball scene of the Babe calling his famed home run shot in another World Series game:

The Babe (1992)

This newer remake of the Babe Ruth story stars John Goodman, who at least looks more the portly part than does William Bendix (although in the clip below, it is evident that the real Babe was a lot more fit than fat).

But the movie again turns The Babe into a demigod, including his promise to poor, sick "Little Johnny" that he would hit a home run for him. Curiously, all the ballparks depicted in the movie except for Fenway Park are actually shots of Chicago's Wrigley Field, which any passing baseball fan would recognize. And one scene even shows "the basket" in Wrigley's outfield, a screen to catch balls and avoid fan interference. The screen was installed in 1970, only 22 years after the Babe's death.

The movie itself is also full of Ruthian-sized factual errors. While still with the Red Sox, the Babe is told to "Get those Yankees," even though the Yankees were a bottom-feeding team until his arrival there and not competitive with the first-division Sox. He is shown pitching sidearm instead of overhand and hitting a home run in his first at-bat, a fictional play on the facts. And in one season, Ruth and teammate "Jumpin" Joe Dugan are shown, with the third basemen revealing that he has gotten his nickname by jumping to whatever teammate pays him to do so.

In fact, Dugan's nickname came from the fact that he'd consistently jump to a new team for a higher paycheck.

Speedy (1928)

Finally, a Babe Ruth movie with good acting, intentional humor and a compelling plot. And this one features the Babe himself, in a scene from a Harold Lloyd silent film comedy made in 1928. It shows that the Babe could hold his own against the weaker attempts that only diminish the larger-than-life legend.

In this film (clip below), the Babe is again the object of adoring fans, signing autographs while suddenly realizing that he is late for a game at Yankee Stadium. The bespeckled Lloyd plays a cabbie whom the Babe signals to take him pronto to the stadium. The Babe's good-naturedness is tested as Lloyd pays more attention to lavishing fan adulation on Ruth ("you've done more for baseball than cheese has done for Switzerland," Lloyd tells him) than in his driving. As he weaves and bobs through teeming New York traffic, Ruth shows his irritation visibly; he wouldn't be as upset by a strikeout in the ninth. The scene ends with Lloyd finally reaching the stadium and the Bambino telling him "I'll call you if I decide to commit suicide."

What a lovable guy, that Babe. Why a movie can't render the colorful real man from the oafish myth is as mysterious to movie lovers as Justin Verlander's fastball is to hitters.