You don’t have to be a hard-core baseball fan to see that The Babe, featuring John Goodman as America’s legendary slugger, turns the life of Babe Ruth into a genially sweet, old-fashioned whitewash. The movie is like some cornball sports bio from the ’40s: Despite a few attempts to present Ruth’s ”dark side” (i.e., women and booze), it tidies up his more disreputable adventures and gives him a heart of gold to boot. Yet as The Babe went on, I found myself utterly charmed by it. The movie understands the rich comedy of Ruth’s appeal, the fact that the grandest athlete of the 20th century was, in one sense, barely an athlete at all. He was, instead, a kind of carnival showman, a big, soft, dumpling-shaped guy who knew how to perform one trick of genius, and who did it over and over again. The fans never got tired of it, and neither did he.
”I like to hit home runs,” says Goodman’s Babe with a boyish grin, and it’s one of most exquisitely understated declarations of bravado ever uttered. Ruth’s gift — his ability to send baseballs soaring over fences — renders every other player on the field irrelevant. That’s its absurd glory, and what makes it so triumphantly American. The Babe sets us down in the patchwork early days of professional baseball, when the players still needle each other with sandlot insults and a ruffian like Babe can round the bases and then saunter up to the stands to buy a hot dog. There’s a barbershop quartet on hand to sing ”We’ve Got a Homer,” but that’s because home runs are still novel events. Babe’s the one who changes all that.
The movie is a PG-rated, fairy-tale Raging Bull. Thrown into an orphanage when he’s only seven, George Ruth grows up into a tenderhearted lout whose spectacular ability with the bat allows him to get away with whatever he wants. Goodman plays Babe as a benignly bedeviled egomaniac, an untamed man-child who’s all appetite. The whole world is his china shop, yet there’s nothing malevolent about him. He simply gazes at whatever’s in front of him — food, ”dames,” a fastball whizzing over the plate — and goes ”Chomp!”
Goodman does a nifty visual impersonation of Ruth, eyes reduced to inscrutable slits, mouth turned down into a haughty smile-frown. When he runs (in staged black-and-white newsreel footage), it’s with the Babe’s sprightly, Fred Flintstone dash. After a night of partying, Babe staggers drunk into the middle of a game and promptly hits one out of the park. That’s the movie’s appeal in a nutshell: Babe doesn’t have to settle down — he just keeps on slugging.
Goodman inspires extraordinary empathy. His Babe has generous impulses — an intuitive respect for what he means to people as an entertainer. As his career winds on, Babe dreams of managing a team, only he’s too erratic a personality; no one will trust him. The movie milks this for all the poignance it can, yet Goodman’s performance stays pure. Without undercutting Babe’s larger-than-life presence, he brings us close to the soul of this one-of-a-kind showman-athlete, revealing the desperation — and cockeyed splendor — of someone who soared so far above his fellow players that his entire life became a game of crash-and-burn.
The episodes involving Babe and his two marriages are the most sanitized in the film. Yet when Babe’s second wife (Kelly McGillis) tries to coax him into retiring, her pleas have true urgency; she’s trying to save her husband’s dignity. It’s an amazing sight — farcical and sad — to see Babe, his glory days over, follow up one of his increasingly rare homers with a slow jaunt to first base, at which point a young runner takes over for him. Fittingly, though, the film ends on a note of surreal triumph. The Babe pushes our buttons, but with surprising resonance; it shows us why people loved Babe Ruth. The movie is a crowd pleaser in the best sense, a giddy celebration of the man who gave baseball its magic.