Idling away during the Christmas Lull I came across a documentary by the Smithsonian Institute on baseball great Babe Ruth. I thought I knew a fair bit about Ruth having read at least one biography of the star somewhere along the line. His on-field exploits—as a Yankee he almost invented the home run with a lifetime batting average of an incredible .342; and let’s not forget what a fabulous pitcher he was when he started his career with the Red Sox (94-46 with a 2.28 ERA!). Off-field he was a Falstaffian character—hard drinking, cigar-chomping and a perpetual womanizer. He could be crude, tempestuous and a bully, but he also had a genuine streak of generosity and kindness, especially with kids. Compared to the sports stars of today he was tremendously available to fans and the media.
But what amazed me the most was how articulate and unaffected he was as a speaker in the various newsreel clips that survive, and incredibly that he displayed a surprising naturalness as an actor in a series of short films he made for Universal boss Carl Laemmle called “Play Ball with Babe Ruth” towards the end of his playing career. Actually, the Babe’s first crack at movies was a 1920 silent film titled “Headin’ Home”–a cheaply slapped-together quickie using newsreel footage supplemented by some staged shots with Ruth. Newly arrived in New York, Ruth was promised $50,000 for the film and he received a down payment of $15,000; but the producers went broke before he could collect the remainder. Still the $15,000 was almost as much as Ruth earned for that first season with the Yankees who paid him $20,000, itself about six times what an ordinary ball player was getting.
“Headin’ Home” was not an artistic success. The New York Tribune described the film as “weak, disjointed and unconvincing,” but, surprisingly, declared Babe Ruth’s performance as “excellent.” “He screens very well and betrays not the slightest unfamiliarity with the new game.” Indeed Ruth took very well to performance of all kinds. He even participated in vaudeville shows. One of the first sports figures to have an agent, Babe made a small fortune endorsing all kinds of commercial products. In his first year with the Yankees his presence alone was not enough to propel the team into the World Series. So he embarked on an exhibition baseball tour at the end of the season. Ruth made $22,500 for the exhibition tour, while the World Series victors, the Cleveland Indians each got $4,250 for winning baseball’s highest prize. So in 1920, Ruth made $20,000 playing baseball and nearly double that amount with outside activities including the movie.
In the “Play Ball with Babe Ruth” series, (1930-32) the plots typically involve the Babe visiting an orphanage or showing up at a sandlot full of kids and giving them some baseball tips. Usually there is one poor little boy who is shunned by his peers and it’s the kindly Babe who turns the kid into a hero by showing him how to hit a homer. Corny as these plots are, the Babe is surprisingly natural in his voice, his body language and facial expressions. He is able to handle sustained bits of dialogue with ease. Robert De Niro he is not, but compared to the current athlete personnel, with their sports clichés written by the team PR department, delivered in a monotone; he is pretty good. Thanks to You Tube people can check some of this stuff out for themselves.