For the first time in 21 years, America’s eyes will turn away from Graceland on Aug. 16 as the national pastime regains its footing: Fueled by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s charge toward a record-breaking home-run season, the media microscope will turn to the 50th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s death and his accomplishments. Of course, Roger Maris holds the record by which fence-busters are measured — 61 homers with its asterisk eroded over time — but in this loving and exquisitely detailed portrait of George Herman Ruth, it’s crystal clear the Bambino remains the standard by which heroes are measured.
The Ruth tale, starting when he was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in 1916, has suffered the indignity of 1948’s “The Babe Ruth Story” and a bit more honest take in 1992’s “The Babe,” but neither Hollywood nor previous documakers have tapped the soul of the man in the manner of HBO’s “Babe Ruth.”
The hour starts with the amazing statistics (714 home runs, a .342 lifetime average, a .690 slugging percentage and nine World Series appearances in 22 seasons) and then sets them to the side, not out of reach but far enough to allow the moral paradox of Ruth to take center stage over a rehash of unheard-of feats.
For every anecdote about the Babe’s wanton lust and gluttony, there’s a touching story, backed up by stills and footage from his heyday in the 1920s and early ’30s. The eating binges, the drinking, womanizing, desertion of his first wife, even mistreatment of his fellow Yankees — all documented without apologies.
As much as the ballplayers, announcers and authors interviewed would lean toward printing the myths rather than the truth, very little that comes to light about Ruth seems far-fetched; the “called shot” in the 1932 World Series comes off as hooey, and the surrounding plotline of a homer for a sick child in a hospital strictly a made-for-Hollywood moment.
Much of the docu’s final third covers Ruth’s awkward fall from grace and the ignominy that organized baseball forced on Ruth following his retirement in 1938. Ruth’s great desire to manage is only touched upon lightly, giving way to show his battle with cancer and his continued work with children.
The docu has a solid balance of snappy, recent interviews and well-restored clips of Ruth hitting, striking out and clowning. Curiously enough, we rarely hear his voice.
As big a hero as he became, docu tells us, he retained a level of humanity that reached out and touched youngsters who never saw him play and only knew him through their fathers’ stories and his place in the record books. That his allure remains 60-odd years beyond his last trip around the bases finds its foundation in these stories.
Ruth has become the conduit through which parents and children connect with their ancestors — take a look at Fox’s charming 1993 pic “The Sandlot” in which the power of baseball for a group of young boys’ in the ’60s is wrapped up in the Ruth mystique. Through baseball in general and Ruth in particular, we see the man’s individual achievement at its galvanizing apex one moment, his fallibility in the next; this is powerfully demonstrated when Nat Fein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Ruth’s back at a Yankee Stadium celebration is shown near the doc’s close.
The potential of the home run remains the purest anticipation of hope in sport, compounding the interest in McGwire, Sosa, Greg Vaughn and Ken Griffey Jr.; not since Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Mickey Mantle has that hope been so bracingly alive.
Ruth was a ham, and it’s easy to laugh at the innocence of his antics in this docu. But his ability to smack a ball out of a park saved baseball from the 1919 Black Sox scandal and sent a signal to future generations about living large and handling fame.
One interview subject talks about Ruth signing a ball for his child despite the fact that the man was neither married nor a father — that a child a generation away and his or her father would have something to cherish, a bond to his younger self. Somehow Ruth just knew.