The question of who was the most famous baseball player of all time is a no brainer if there ever was one. It’s Babe Ruth…the Bambino…the Sultan of Swat! Even those who have no other knowledge of the game of baseball know his name. He changed the game forever with his hitting style that focused on home runs (a rarity before he came along). Naturally, a biopic or two has been made about this legendary figure. In more recent years, John Goodman starred as the Babe, but there was another film released at the very end of Ruth’s life. In fact, it was released just a few weeks before the Hall of Famers death in 1948, The Babe Ruth Story.
The story begins in Baltimore where the young George Herman Ruth is a bit of a troublemaker for his saloon owner father. This leads to him being sent off to a boarding school run by a number of priests. One of the clergymen, Brother Matthias (Charles Bickford), especially helps guide the boy and encourages his interest in the game of baseball. As George becomes a young man, it is Brother Matthias who helps him get his first job with the minor league Baltimore Orioles as a pitcher.
It doesn’t take long for George (William Bendix), dubbed Babe by his minor league manager, to earn a place in the big show with the Boston Red Sox. He becomes one of the most successful pitchers in the game, though he doesn’t prove to be too intelligent off the field. He does hit a bit of a rough patch when opposing players pick up on the signals he unwittingly gives that indicate how he will throw the ball. This is pointed out to him by a chorus girl named Claire (Claire Trevor) who quickly becomes the object of his affection.
After several successful years as a pitcher, he starts to excel as a hitter and is moved to the outfield. He also ends up being dealt to the New York Yankees, where he helps create a new baseball dynasty. Along the way we also see how he treated his fans, especially children. In one moment, after accidentally hitting a ball that smacks into a kids’ dog, the slugger rushes the dog off to a hospital to get it care from a team of doctors (not vets, mind you) and missing the game in the process. We also see him promise to hit a homer for a sick boy and accomplishing this by calling his shot during a World Series game with the Cubs. This is actually two incidents strung together, but what do you expect from a biopic. Eventually, though, the years catch up with the Babe and he ends up facing his own mortality at a rather early age.
Many hardcore baseball fans are often critical of The Babe Ruth Story, and rightfully so. It is a glossy biopic in the true Hollywood sense. Events are flipped around or combined with others for the convenience of storytelling. The film completely ignores Ruth’s first wife, making it seem as if Claire (his 2nd wife) was his only love. There are bits and pieces of truth throughout the film, but it’s far from a complete picture of the famed slugger. The strangest thing is that the end of the film depicts Ruth at death’s door, yet according to internet sources it was released three weeks before the Bambino actually passed.
At times the film feels very over-scripted; trying way too hard to sound important. The most awkward moments of the script come in the form of a completely unnecessary narration that comes and goes over the course of the film. The film even goes out of it’s way to include two musical numbers, one being a dance number to “Singin’ in the Rain” coming four years before the famous film of the same name. The Babe himself even tries to hoof it with the chorus girls. Let’s just say Gene Kelly’s got nothing to worry about.
What makes the film enjoyable is a solid performance from Bendix in the lead role. The actor supposedly spent time as a batboy for the New York Yankees during his youth and actually knew Babe Ruth. For the most part, his depiction of Ruth is that of a man with the heart of a champion and the innocence of a child. He makes Ruth an extremely likeable character.
I’m sure the historical inaccuracies in this film are far more than I even realize. For example, I have a feeling that fans didn’t gather outside Ruth’s hospital window while he was on his deathbed and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. However, I think the film still captures what it was about Babe Ruth that people loved. The Babe Ruth Story may not have a space in the Hall of Fame, but it still manages to be quite entertaining.