'Babe' commits too many errors, whiffs at capturing the true slugger

John Steadman

April 27, 1992|By John Steadman

All the movie-maker had to do was tell the story as Babe Ruth lived it. Fiction wasn't needed because his accomplishments on the field, and off, set him apart. A singular identity. There was never anyone to compare to the "Babe", the title of the latest film that takes enormous liberties with the facts. Historians deserve to be indignant.

We never knew the "Babe" and that's our loss. His wife, Claire, we interviewed on three occasions. She was filled-up with her importance and for no other reason than she was married to probably the most talented and colorful athlete the world has known.

When the picture was being prepared, a man involved in research elicited assistance. He said all the basic information had been organized, except for two questions:

* Had Ruth ever lined a ball between the pitcher's legs that accelerated for a home run over the center-field fence?

* Had Ruth once lofted a pop-up to the infield that was hit so high that before it came down he had rounded the bases for a home run?

The answer to the double inquiry was an emphatic "no." But the "pop-up home run" is in the picture. Actually, the Babe hit 10 inside-the-park homers in his career, which is two ahead of Willie Mays and nine more than Henry Aaron, but none came as the result of an infield fly.

In the "Babe", played by actor John Goodman, he is shown as being barrel-shaped almost from the time he was a child. The Babe, in his early years with the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, was a strong, flat-stomached, imposing physical specimen of 6-foot-2, 190-pounds. His belt-line didn't expand until he was almost 30 years old.

The movie has Jack Dunn, owner/manager of the Orioles, visiting St. Mary's Industrial School and personally scouting Ruth. That never happened. The Orioles didn't actually see him play until they took him to training camp at Fayetteville, N.C., in 1914. An Oriole representative, not Dunn, visited St. Mary's in February of that year and had him pointed out in a crowd of kids who were enjoying themselves by sliding on a patch of ice.

Ruth, during his years at St. Mary's, never punched one of the Xaverian Brothers who operated the school that, in the main, was a home for orphans. The studio also tries to tell us Ruth was abandoned by his parents. Also that he was signed after the Orioles had lost six straight games and needed to come out of a slump. Three more falsehoods.

In Ruth's first training camp, after being released by St. Mary's as a legal ward of Dunn, he discovered the outside world. He was fascinated by the elevator in the hotel where the Orioles were staying and, for hours, child-like, operated it from lobby to roof. It was a "toy" he had never seen before. That occurred with the Orioles; not the Red Sox.

Still later, he's shown with the Yankees in training at New Orleans, where he stays out all night (which may have happened) and goes to practice the next morning. In street clothes, with all others in uniform, he hits a succession of pitches unbelievable distances. Forget it.

Ruth, since he was human, had flaws. But his most endearing quality was his love of children. There wasn't anything phony about that.

He had a genuine appreciation for what St. Mary's was able to do for him.

After Ruth became a baseball standout, he presented a new Cadillac to Brother Mathias, CFX, the man who had helped him at St. Mary's. The car was demolished in an accident with a train. Ruth bought him another. After a fire destroyed some of the school's buildings, Babe gave money and took the St. Mary's Band on trips about the country to help raise restoration funds.

But none of that is portrayed. Goodman, offering effort but little realism to the role, said after learning about Ruth he believed his life and career had enough material for two more movies. Universal Studios, which brought us the "Babe", failed its audience. It only had to tell the story as it happened, minus fabrication, and it would have qualified for the Hall of Fame, which translates in moviedom to a thing called an Academy Award.

Instead, in the parlance of the game, it strikes out with the bat on its shoulder. That wasn't the Babe.

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