By Matt Singer
Baseball players and movie stars aren’t all that different, really. They both entertain people for a living. They both make obscene amounts of money. Fans want autographs from both. And certainly, many movie stars have wanted to be baseball players just last month, Billy Crystal risked potential humiliation by playing in a spring training game for his beloved New York Yankees.
In his one at bat, Crystal struck out, which is kind of fitting considering that in the few times that big-time major leaguers have ventured onto the silver screen, the results have generally been equally unsuccessful despite the fact that these men have often played themselves, roles they really should have had more than a passing familiarity with. Then again, Hollywood has so often mangled the truths of these guys’ stories, who’s to blame them for looking so lost in their own lives?
In honor of the start of the 2008 baseball season, IFC News will be paying tribute to the national pastime’s long relationship with the movies every day this week by giving you everything you’d ever want to know about these odd little quasi-autobiographical ditties. Peanuts and crackerjacks not included.
“Headin’ Home” (1920)
Directed by Lawrence C. Windom
As Himself: Babe Ruth
Game Summary: An old codger from George Herman Ruth Jr.’s hometown of Haverlock reminisces about the Babe’s rise to stardom from the right field stands of the Polo Grounds. Through flashbacks, we see Babe, a town misfit who towers over everyone he meets, help his foster sister, Pigtails (Frances Victory), out of a few mild scrapes. Eventually, a traveling baseball squad comes to town to challenge Haverlock’s best. Babe isn’t permitted to play, but an illness on the opposing team forces him into the their lineup, a development upon which he wins the game with a prodigious home run. Unfortunately for Babe, that drives a wedge between him and the rest of the community (as in they chase him through the streets with pitchforks). Ultimately, Babe’s heart and his newfound baseball stardom endear him to the townspeople.
On-Field Achievements: Do they even need mentioning? Look at it this way: A lifetime .342 hitter, Babe Ruth remains the only guy in history who could hit .393, win the Most Valuable Player Award and consider it an off year. Two seasons earlier, Ruth hit for a lower average (a paltry .378) while knocking in 59 home runs and a staggering 171 RBIs. By the way, he also had 16 triples. That’s four more than Jose Reyes had last season.
On-Screen Achievements: As if he’s Paul Bunyan or something, Babe actually chops down a tree and spends half the movie whittling it down into a workable, if impressively massive, bat. He also tosses one character he doesn’t like into a lake with such nonchalance, it’s flabbergasting. Those old newsreels of Ruth show him hitting the ball, but you never get to see where they land, so watching him just manhandle his co-stars like they were made of cardboard really gives a good sense of how this guy could routinely launch balls 450 feet into the air.
Errors Committed: Practically too many to mention. Though the film purports to be the true story of the Great Bambino’s formative years, it bears almost no resemblance to his real life. If there is a real Haverlock, Ruth isn’t from there; he was born in Baltimore, and grew up mostly in a reformatory. He didn’t have any foster sisters, and I’m guessing he got his bats from Louisville Slugger just like everybody else. It’s also worth noting that while “Headin’ Home” was made after Ruth had spent just one year with the Yanks, no mention is made of his time with the Boston Red Sox. Interestingly, the film is produced by an entity called the “Yankee Photo Corporation.” Hmm…coincidence?
Discoveries: Growing up in Little League, the one thing you never wanted the other kids on the team to see you do (other than kissing your mom goodbye when she dropped you off at practice) was choking up on your bat. This was a sign of great, unforgivable weakness; you were better off using your little brother’s T-ball bat than choking up on the one the coach gave you. What, then, to make of Ruth at the plate in “Headin’ Home” where he visibly chokes up every time he gets his hands on a piece of lumber? If only I knew about this movie when I was 11 a lot of mockery could have been avoided.
Substitutions: Though the Babe’s popped up in small roles here and there (Ruth even played himself again in the Lou Gehrig biopic “The Pride of the Yankees”), he only took center stage in two other films, where he was played by other actors: 1948’s “The Babe Ruth Story,” in which he’s portrayed by William Bendix, and 1992’s “The Babe,” featuring John Goodman and a gelatinous layer of flop sweat as the Sultan of Swat.
Final Score: As biography, “Headin’ Home” is just about worthless. As a silent comedy, it’s not terrible, and the always charismatic Ruth manages just fine in his role; the fact that he didn’t need to worry about dialogue doesn’t hurt him either. The picture ends with a beautifully edited Ruth at bat. As the pitcher looks in, there’s a flurry of close-ups: Ruth’s feet in the batter’s box, his meaty hands gripping the bat, and a shot focused on his eyes peering intensely into the camera, with the rest of the frame blacked out. Cut back to the pitcher as he winds up and with an effortless swing, the ball is launched and the game and movie is over.
[Photos: Babe Ruth in “Headin’ Home,” 1920; Poster for “Headin’ Home]