Transactions And The Movies: The Babe

In my recent column about how teams replace sudden losses, I wrote that I had some problems with that movie. I figured this would be a relatively uncontroversial statement, but loyal reader Ernesto Figueroa wrote:

Hello! I would love to read more about your problems with the film The Babe starring John Goodman. I really enjoyed the film & want to know more about your criticisms.

Ernesto, I'm glad you asked. I even went back and re-watched. Simply put, I found the writing and directing to be nearly cartoonish, with characters assigned one face that they were required to keep on throughout. I would blame the actors, but when even people like James Cromwell and John Goodman are guilty of it, it pretty much has to be the direction. And Goodman's Ruth magically goes from a child who speaks like he is five until age 30 to a wise old man from 31 through the end of the film.

But this is a baseball site, not Roger Ebert's site. So I will point out the shocking baseball transgressions in the film.

1. John Goodman is morbidly obese from the start. He looks nothing like young Ruth, and his difficulty getting around the bases, during years when Ruth registered double figures in stolen bases, is absurd.

2. Babe Ruth, and you'd think a bio pic would take the time to find this out, was first and foremost a pitcher for many, many years. Yet somehow, we aren't treated to him on the mound until the 34th minute of the film.

3. John Goodman's swing never comes close to the sweetness of the Babe's. Every one of his "home run swings" looks like a foul ball into the first-base stands. He lunges after the ball, swings above it, yet somehow the ball lands over the Forbes Field wall.

4. With the Boston Braves, Goodman is portrayed as a man spitting up blood (he didn't get throat cancer until more than a decade later) who has a runner run out his home runs (against baseball rules, never happened, and the one thing a slowing slugger actually can do is a home run trot). He isn't late-career Babe Ruth; he is late-movie Charles Foster Kane.

I could go on. But look, I am an MLB Trade Rumors writer, so my passion is for transactions. And I think this isn't a small nitpick: the movie, an hour and forty nine minutes long, gives the better part of a minute, thirty seconds to the biggest transaction in baseball history: Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

The deal that spawned decades of misery in Boston, championships and a new stadium in New York, and a legendary career was quite complicated. Ruth wanted a bigger payday, and no wonder – he'd just hit 29 home runs, setting the all-time mark, and posted an OPS+ of 216. He asked for a $10K raise. Boston owner Harry Frazee balked.

The White Sox offered him Shoeless Joe Jackson for Ruth, arguably a poorer long-term asset than the $125K in cash and $300K loan he received from the Yankees. (Jackson was banned from baseball after the 1920 season for his role in the fixing of the 1919 World Series.)

So let's see: two of baseball's most legendary franchises, with a third at the periphery, two of the biggest stars of the era… and it merits about a minute of screen time?

The film wasn't exactly overstuffed with material that couldn't be cut. Maybe leave out one of the six car rides Ruth took with a gang of children. Or, I don't know, one of the two- TWO- scenes at parties where Ruth makes a partygoer pull his finger, with predictable results. Would it surprise you to know both of these scenes lasted longer than the Ruth-to-the-Yankees business?

As for the circumstances that sent Ruth to Boston after the 1934 season, that turned out to be a solid decision for the Yankees. Ruth had just posted a 160 OPS+, though he played in just 125 games at age 39. But Ruth wanted to manage the team, and the Yankees simply didn't think he was ready to be a Major League skipper. Ruth asked for his release, and signed as a free agent with the Braves. In an interesting sidenote, Ruth's 118 OPS+ with Boston would have ranked him above every New York outfielder other than George Selkirk in 1935. And his salary wasn't nearly the $80K it was at his peak; Boston agreed to pay him just $35K.

Ruth to the Braves is explained in greater detail in the film than Ruth to the Yankees, though Yankees owner Colonel Jake Ruppert is as cartoonishly a villain as one can be. Also, Ruth's second wife is given much of the exposition of the situation, but delivers it with an impassioned plea. Somehow, she's very passionate about the business effect Ruth had on baseball approximately 15 years before.

The final scenes, which involve Ruth happening to walk by as the Braves' owner explains, in unnecessarily hostile detail, to no one in particular, why Ruth is just a parlor trick instead of a manager-in-waiting, are particularly slow. The final scene, where a boy Ruth once visited in the hospital in a different city returns to give Ruth back his ball in Pittburgh, takes stretch to a whole new level.

Still, all this could be forgiven if we had one strong five-minute scene with Boston owner Harry Frazee and Ruppert negotiating the deal.  Alas, it is not to be. Thus, from a transaction standpoint, I rate The Babe as Designated For Assignment.

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