'Babe Ruth' a film meant for baseball fans


October 04, 1991|By Michael Hill

After baseball fans spend Sunday afternoon saying goodbye to Memorial Stadium, they can spend Sunday evening with another of Baltimore's contributions to our national pastime -- Babe Ruth.

NBC is saying goodbye to baseball's regular season -- and to male viewers for a while, to cater to non-baseball fans for the rest of the month while post-season play dominates CBS' prime time -- with "Babe Ruth," which will air Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Channel 2 (WMAR).

This is a movie for baseball fans, not for movie fans. Though it features a stellar performance by Stephen Lang in the title role, the film never develops any thematic resonance, droning on as a recital of the facts and fantasies surrounding the life of this most famous of ballplayers.

Ruth was born and raised in Baltimore -- his birthplace, his mother's family home, is a museum; the site of his family home above his father's bar lies under the new stadium -- and apparently was an incorrigible youth.

As a result, he was frequently shipped off to the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, essentially what was known at the time as a reform school. Perhaps if "Babe Ruth" had tried to re-create that rough and tumble youth, if it had built a hardscrabble foundation for his later fame and glory, then it might have been a film that transcended the sports biography genre.

But it didn't. The St. Mary's school is seen only as the place where a kindly priest first pitched a ball to cocky young George Ruth and watched it sail far into the distance. Ruth is shown visiting the place as an adult a few times, but only to demonstrate that he really did care about kids, not to evoke the specifics of the tough upbringing he faced.

Though framed by the Bambino looking back on his life during a conversation with his wife as his career neared its end in 1935, "Babe Ruth" essentially tells the story only of his Yankee years, after he was sold to that team by the Boston Red Sox.

And it tells that story in a sturdy linear style, using hoary devices like an ever-present sportswriter to deliver lines of exposition whenever needed. In fact, despite help from occasional narration by Ruth, every characters' dialogue is laden with move-the-story-along expository commentary throughout the two hours. You keep waiting for a calendar to appear on the screen so that famous moviemaker's wind could come along and blow away the years, but it never does.

What "Babe Ruth" does successfully evoke is baseball of a bygone era. The stadiums it uses look great, the uniforms seem immaculately accurate, the fields properly groomed and lined, complete with photographers standing right next to the catcher when a player came in to score. Lang contributes his part with perfect imitations of Babe's swing and home run trot.

Off the field, Lang portrays Babe as a well-meaning ne'er-do-well who, despite not having a mean bone in his body, managed to screw up most of the personal relationships in his life.

By the way, Lang was the second choice for this role, originally meant for John Goodman. But the "Roseanne" star bolted when the opportunity to play Ruth for a big screen film came along. Whatever the eventual qualities of that movie, it will be hard to image Goodman topping Lang's work.

The rest of the cast, including a cameo by Pete Rose as Ty Cobb, Bruce Weitz as Yankee manager Millard Huggins and Donald Moffatt as team owner Jacob Ruppert, is just there to carry his bats.


Two compilations of old shows are worthy of note tonight. Bill Moyers' "20 Years of Listening to America" for various PBS programs gets condensed into 90 minutes at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.

You get to hear from some great minds -- Maya Angelou, Joseph Campbell, Lillian Hellman and the like -- but you realize that it has been Moyers' ear for ordinary people that has made him such an astute chronicler of our times.

What you wish is that he had the money and time to go back and re-visit some of these people you hear from tonight, especially the community in Queens, whose vicious battle against integration was so movingly reported by Moyers more than 15 years ago.

Also at 9 o'clock, this time on Channel 11 (WBAL), CBS is giving us two hours of excerpts of celebrity interviews from "60 Minutes." Called "The Entertainers," this is about the cheapest way a network could fill up two hours of prime time, splicing together bits of a show that it already owns.

Despite that, "The Entertainers" is undeniably entertaining, whether it's Johnny Carson playing the drums, Vladimir Horowitz playing "Stars and Stripes Forever," or, most hilariously, Robin Williams pretending to direct Jonathan Winters during his interview with Ed Bradley.

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