'The Babe' swings, strikes out again

JOHN EISENBERG

May 28, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Johnny Sylvester is not around to set the record straight this time, and that is too bad. He would have loved the way the Hollywood boys botched his story again.

They got the basic elements right, as usual -- yes, Johnny was the little boy supposedly dying from a head injury when Babe Ruth hit a home run for him in the 1926 World Series. But everything else always gets butchered in the movies.

It was all wrong in "The Babe Ruth Story," the old black-and-white job starring William Bendix. Now, along comes "The Babe" and a chance to right the wrong, but the facts get botched even worse.

Johnny died a couple of years ago at 75, and it is too bad, because no one got a bigger laugh out of seeing the facts of his story get mangled.

"They weren't even close [in 'The Babe Ruth Story']," he told me one day in 1987, giggling at his home in Garden City, N.Y.

He would have belly-laughed at "The Babe." The part where Babe comes to see him in the hospital. The part where he asks Babe to hit two home runs, not one. The part where he offers to give Babe a ball years later.

His reaction to all this sentimentality would have been the same as his reaction to "The Babe Ruth Story":

"Where they got that stuff," he said, "I have absolutely no idea."

Actually, Johnny knew where they got it, and why. The real story wasn't quite sensational enough. "They were looking for drama, I think," he said.

The way it really happened, Johnny got kicked in the head by a falling horse, became listless, began convulsing and checked into a hospital in New Jersey. He was 12 years old and devoted to the Yankees, and his father sent telegrams to the Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, who were in the World Series.

The Yankees sent two balls. One was signed by Lou Gehrig, the other by several Yankees, most prominently Ruth, who wrote on the ball: "I will knock a homer for you in Wednesday's game." He hit three.

It was not until after the Series that the press learned Ruth had made good on a promise to a reportedly dying boy. It made headlines, naturally. The story grew and grew through the years, as stories do. In the Bendix movie, Babe comes to see Johnny in the hospital and makes his promise there. A teary business.

"But it just didn't happen," Johnny said in 1987. "He did come to visit me at the house after the World Series, which was nice of him. I didn't have much to say, and neither did he other than to ask how I was doing. But it was still fun."

Johnny recovered from his injury, went to Princeton, served in the Navy in World War II, had a family and ran a company that

sold machinery for 30 years on Long Island. The rest of the country forgot about him. Whenever someone realized who he was, which happened occasionally, they would say, "I thought you died."

To which Johnny would always respond: "Thanks a lot."

Anyway, along comes "The Babe," purportedly a true story, but full of events that never happened. Johnny's story really gets a rewrite job.

"Tons of fiction this time," Johnny's son, Johnny Jr., said the other day.

This time, Babe again makes his home run promise in the hospital and gives Johnny a ball. Johnny weakly raises two fingers, imploring the Babe to hit two homers, not one.

Never happened.

At game time, Johnny lies in bed holding the ball. After Babe hits the homer, he grabs the microphone from the Yankees' radio announcer and rasps, "That was for you, kid." The whole stadium is in on the story. The whole city.

Never happened.

Then, years later, as Babe nears the end of his career, Johnny meets him at a game and offers to give back the ball, ostensibly because it brings good luck.

"No way did that happen," Johnny Jr. said. "My dad treasured that ball. He kept it in his dresser."

Johnny Sr. brought the ball to Baltimore in 1986 and gave it to the Babe Ruth Museum, where it remains. The movie boys who made "The Babe" did some research at the museum, but even after seeing the ball, which sets the record straight, they decided not to let facts get in the way of a good ending.

"It's not surprising," Johnny Jr. said. "This story took on a life of its own years ago. Babe Ruth did help out my dad, which is a neat story, but the myth still outgrew the reality a long time ago."

Johnny didn't really care. He was a gentle man with a twinkle in his eye who just thought it was funny that no one ever got the story right.

"To be honest," he said in 1987, "sometimes when ['The Babe Ruth Story'] comes on the late show, I don't even make it to my scene. I fall asleep. It's kind of a lousy picture, you know."

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