Myths from The 1948 Babe Ruth Story

Nobody's Perfect, But the William Bendix 1948 Movie Version of the Bambino Came Close for Some of Us Kids.

Nobody’s Perfect, But the William Bendix 1948 Movie Version of the Bambino Came Close for Some of Us Kids.

 

In 1948, this writer was 10 years old for all but the last day of that year. Some time earlier that summer,  a neighborhood pal named J.B. Berry and my little brother John McCurdy and yours truly all got to see “The Babe Ruth Story” at the Avalon Theater on 75th in the Houston East End. It was the version that starred William Bendix as “The Babe” and I think, even now, I can speak safely for all of us (J.B. was 8 and Brother John was 6 at the time), when I say that we all fell deeply in love with Babe Ruth from that movie, even though actor Bendix didn’t look much like the few photos we had seen of the real Babe Ruth. Actually, we fell in love with the heroic version of Babe Ruth that the movie flooded upon our eager to be won over minds and spirits. I don’t know how to put it any better. We walked out of that movie theater like saved souls. Babe Ruth was our super human, baseball god hero – and nobody else came even came close to his importance in our points of view.

If you were a kid in that era, you may know exactly what I’m writing about here. With no television, Internet, or social media to distract us in those days, our heroes hunger fed on images from the theater of the mind that was radio of that era, from radio broadcasts of actual games, from the local newspaper sports pages, and very much from the original news and story format version of The Sporting News. The great visual fairy tales on any subject came to us only rarely – and only through film – with movies made by the Hollywood producers who knew, understood, and used the power they held over our imaginations to prey upon all our emotions.

No actor was scarier to me than Peter Lorre in “The Beast with Five Fingers”, the story of a murdered pianist’s severed hand – and how it still played music every night downstairs in this dark and gloomy mansion before crawling away on the floor to strangle another guest in their bed before disappearing again from apprehension until late the next night – when the hand played the piano again.

I don’t have a DVD of the 1948 Ruth movie, but I do remember the major “tricks with the truth” that effected us innocently minded kids of that era. It was later – to much later – that I learned the truth about them all. Everything I saw that day, I thought was the gospel truth.

  1. Babe Ruth was not a perfect kid. In the movie, Babe Ruth as a kid didn’t seem any worse than anybody I knew in Pecan Park, including me, but his dad couldn’t handle him and seemed to stay mad him all the time. Babe’s mom wasn’t around, but we weren’t sure if she had died or just run away from his grumpy old dad. Either way, she wasn’t around to help Babe either. So Babe’s dad gave him away to an orphanage for being imperfect and too much trouble to raise. Poor Babe. His predicament made us wonder. Could the same thing happen to us? None of us were perfect either!
  2. Baseball saved Babe Ruth, but Brother Matthias and the supportive culture of St. Mary’s Home helped too. Babe Ruth had one thing he could do that he did better than anyone else when he arrived at St. Mary’s. He could hit a baseball further – or throw a baseball harder – than anyone else his age or older than anyone else we had ever seen. He easily could have started for the Pecan Park Eagles on his first trip to the Japonica-Myrtle sandlot in 1948. Had he done so, he would have been there long enough to be a big part of the day we formally renamed ourselves as the Pecan Park Eagles and our sandlot as “Eagle Field” in 1950. Had Babe Ruth joined us as a kid our age, we, the Eagles of Pecan Park, could have been the first to have billed our newly re-christened field as “The House That Ruth Built.” As it worked out, Babe spent the rest of his childhood growing up much earlier at St. Mary’s Home for Wayward Boys in Baltimore  – playing baseball, for sure – but getting good support from Brother Matthias, the firm, but gentle Catholic religious order principal of the place who encouraged Babe to play baseball – as he also learned how to be a tailor as his career back up plan.
  3. Babe performed a miracle that got him his first pro baseball contract. Once Babe was old enough to leave St. Mary’s, a fellow named Jack Dunn, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, came to speak with Brother Mathias about signing Babe Ruth to a professional baseball contract. Dunn asked Brother Mathias if he thought Babe had good control of the pitchers he threw. Before the principal could answer, a baseball came crashing through the window of Brother M’s office. Brother M quickly issued a “George, come in here” command at the door – and even more quickly, here  came William Bendix in a sweatshirt, wearing a baseball cap, pants, and long socks – and wearing a glove on his right hand. He was the oldest looking 18-year old pitcher you will ever see on film. – Finally answering Dunn’s question about ball control, Matthias turned to Babe and handed him the errant ball that he had thrown through the window down the hall – leaving not even a slight larger-than-a-baseball circular hole in the window door it had entered by. “Get rid of the baseball, George – and get it out of here in the same way you threw it in here. – Babe wound up and threw the ball all the way across the room. It left the building through the same hole it had created upon entry – without creating a single scintilla of extra harm. – Jack Dunn signed George Herman Ruth to his first baseball contract before leaving the building.
  4. Claire Ruth was the Babe’s only wife – (not true, he was married once earlier). During his pitching career with the Red Sox, Babe met Claire in a bar – and she helped him correct the fact that he was tipping his curve ball to batters every time by sticking his tongue out when he intended to throw a curve.
  5. As a Yankee in pre-game practice at Comiskey Park, a loud foul by Babe struck a little dog named “Pee Wee”, seriously injuring him. In uniform, Babe took Pee Wee and his young and crying owner with him in a cab to a local hospital, where a kind doctor worked hours on the little canine and saved his life. Relieved finally, Babe checked the clock and realized that he had missed the game. Babe got in trouble with Yankee Manager Miller Huggins the way we used to get in trouble sometimes for getting caught “forgetting” to go to school.
  6. When Babe proposed marriage to his singer-dancer girl friend Claire at the night club where she worked, he joined her on the stage to sing “I’ll Get By As Long As I Have You”.
  7. In the movie, Babe Ruth hit his record 60th HR on the final day of the 1927 season (if I remember correctly). In reality, HR #60 came on the next to last day of 1927. On the last day, Babe went 0 for 3.
  8. Babe “Called His Shot” in the 1932 Series Game at Wrigley Field. You bet. In the movie he did. He even counted off strikes ” 1″ and “2” on his fingers as he awaited a third pitch with his bat on his shoulder. Then, when the count was down to 0-2, the Babe jabbed his index finger high and straight to center field three times defiantly before receiving a pitched ball that was straight down the middle of the plate – as opposed to one that would have put him face down in the dust. There was no question lingering in the movie about Babe’s intention. – He was calling his shot. – No doubt about it.
  9. In 1935, when Babe’s career was playing out miserably as a member of the Boston Braves, Babe reached for one last moment of glory in a game against the Pirates at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh on May 25, 1935. He hit three monster home runs and retired from the game. Not true again. Babe played five more road games in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, going 0 for 9 before hanging them up for good in Philly on May 30, 1935. Babe also had to give up on the Braves’ promise that he would eventually get to manage the club by agreeing to the trade that sent him back to Boston with the the NL club as a player. His attitude in the movie was the same about legal action every time baseball let him down. “Sue baseball?” Babe Bendix said in the movie. “No way. That would be like suing the Church!”
  10. When Babe dies of cancer in 1948, he is treated by the same doctor who saved the little dog Pee Wee years earlier. The movie ends with Babe Ruth being wheeled on a gurney down the hall from his room for an experimental drug treatment that could prove the answer for millions of others. It doesn’t work, but Babe Ruth gives up his life for the rest of us. And as he is being wheeled away, a gang of kids has gathered outside the open window of his first floor room to sing  a slow and grieving version of baseball’s international anthem, “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” As the movie then shifts to into “The End” closing credits, Babe’s trip down the hospital hall fades to black as the movie screen scene shifts to a scene of sandlotters playing ball to the final rising and now triumphant chorus finish of “Take Met Out To The Ballgame” – and a closing narrator says something like “and baseball will live on for as long as there is … a ball … a bat … a glove … and a ‘boy’ (Sorry, girls. It was a less gender sensitive era.) who wants to play the game that Babe Ruth saved for all of us!” (By 2016, the announcer’s actual words have been over-run by what I now apparently need to remember.)

At any rate, our early small contingent of Pecan Park Eagles were neither capable or desirous of critiquing “The Babe Ruth Story” back in 1948 either – and this writer is really no better at it now. We saw what we wanted to believe. And some us still tear-up privately when we watch the dramatic conclusion of the movie.

Sorry this story took so long. I had to try to share more of what I could of it, even if I have failed to express it all in shorter different approaches to the same core in the past. The spirit of the Babe we once needed him to be lives on in millions of us. I feel sure of it.

____________________

eagle-0range
Bill McCurdy

Publisher, Editor, Writer

The Pecan Park Eagle

Houston, Texas

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7 Responses to “Myths from The 1948 Babe Ruth Story”

  1. Tom Hunter Says:

    By the time I saw “The Babe Ruth Story’ in the 1950s, I had seen actual photos and film of Babe Ruth and had watched the TV series, “The Life of Riley,” starring William Bendix. So even though I enjoyed the movie, I was more critical of Mr. Bendix’s athletic ability and had a hard time separating him from the character he played on television.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      “What a revoltin’ development” that must have been for you, Tom. 🙂

      • Bill McCurdy Says:

        Maybe that TV show’s casting director used “The Babe Ruth Story” as his answer to the following questions: “Where are we going to find an actor who’s really led the ‘Life of Riley’ in one of his roles to play this part on a TV sitcom?”

  2. Anthnony Cavender Says:

    Babe Ruth played Babe Ruth in the Pride of the Yankees, and was very good. William Bendix played Babe Ruth in the Babe Ruth Story and wasn’t very good.
    FYI–Jane Leavy, who’s written biographies of Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax is working on a new biography of the Babe.

  3. Wayne Chandler Says:

    William Bendix was better as Riley. I always liked it when he made a decision: “I’ve made up my head.”

  4. Bill McCurdy Says:

    BILL HICKMAN SAYS:

    Hi, BIll MCCURDY) –

    My connection to Pecan Park Eagle doesn’t seem to let me post comments there any longer, but I wanted to mention to you that Pat Flaherty played Babe Ruth’s manager Bill Carrigan in the movie you covered yesterday. In the only connection I’ve ever had to “Inside Hollywood,” I became pen pals with Flaherty’s daughter, Frances, until her death a few years ago. She was a very nice lady, and quite generous with tales of her father and the family. It resulted in my writing a piece for the BioProject on Pat Flaherty, who appeared in around 250 movies — always as a character actor with abbreviated roles. He was also an athlete in both pro baseball and pro football. Bill Nowlin and Rob Edelman are working on a SABR book called BASEBALL AND THE MOVIES, which hopefully will make it to publication. It supposedly will include my piece on Flaherty.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Bill Hickman, My Friend,

      I cannot imagine the glitch that is keeping you from commenting directly here, but will now do I call I can to learn what it is and get it corrected. – Just more evidence of what is likely to happen on that some future date we turn our lives completely over to the machines. Perhaps we already have, but just aren’t smart enough yet to realize what we’ve done.

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