Like Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth continues to be a huge part of American popular culture. Whether or not he was the best baseball player of all-time could be argued by stat-junkies forever, but his spot as the game’s biggest star is without question. On the field, his ability to crush the ball made him one of the game’s premier hitters. Early in his career he was also a fantastic pitcher. But home runs and strike outs don’t make sporting icons. It has to be more than that. Becoming a household name requires a certain showmanship. Some have it and Eddie Murray didn’t.
At the height of his popularity, Babe Ruth was bigger than baseball. His face was everywhere. But in 1920, the year the silent film Headin’ Home was released, Ruth was only recently acquired by the New York Yankees. At this point he was merely “a really good baseball player.” An odd film with little story, Headin’ Home has a big place in sports history, offering an early look at Ruth before he developed his trademark belly. It’s also something of a landmark because starring in a film is a sign that a sports star has hit the big-time.
Headin’ Home takes Ruth’s biography and skews it to the point where it’s comical. He’s a Paul Bunyan figure who marches into the woods and makes his own bats out of trees that he’s cut down. He also consoles young girls and imagines dogs being put into meat grinders. It’s surreal stuff made all the more strange when you notice the caked on white make-up on Ruth’s face that makes him look like a clown (the powder was common practice in films at the time but it still looks odd, particularly on someone not normally connected to movies).
The plot takes on massive fictional embellishments, so it’s tough to call it biographical. But it certainly does work in trumpeting the arrive of Ruth in New York. I found it more interesting to watch the film from a historical perspective as a baseball fan than I did on a strictly cinematic level as the story is a confusing jumble of awkward scenes and boring subplots. But seeing a young Ruth just as he’s coming into his iconic own is a rare treat worth catching.
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