My editor said, "they're making a movie based on your Babe Ruth book. Take a look at it being made and write something about it. Could be fun."
Maybe, I thought. It could also be confusing because, as it developed, there were two Babe Ruth movies being made at the same time. One was for television this fall (NBC, Sunday, Oct. 6, 9 p.m. EDT), and the other for movie theaters next spring. Mine was the TV version.
Various filmmakers have suggested doing a movie based on my book (Babe: The Legend Comes to Life) since it was published 17 years ago, but nothing had ever happened. When I learned a while ago that a Hollywood producer named Larry Lyttle wanted to do a film based on Babe, I assumed it was just one more case of wishful thinking.
This time it turned out to be different. The project started when Lyttle and Brandon Tartikoff, a very big cheese in show business who was then head of NBC Entertainment and is now in charge of Paramount Pictures, were relaxing next to a pool in Hollywood, talking baseball. Everybody in Hollywood relaxes next to a pool, but not everyone talks baseball. These two were talking baseball because they had just finished playing Softball. One thing led to another, and Lyttle said: You know what I'd like to do?—I'd like to do a television movie on Babe Ruth. They talked idly about who might play the Babe. Then, seriously, Tartikoff said, "Get John Goodman, and we'll do it on NBC."
September 29, 1991
Not one to sit around a pool for long, Lyttle moved quickly and "got" Goodman, or so he thought. NBC gave Lyttle the go-ahead. With NBC and Goodman in hand, Lyttle obtained the rights to Babe and was ready to roll.
I still didn't believe it would happen. Too many earlier efforts had fizzled out. Then items started appearing in newspaper gossip columns. One said, "Producer Larry Lyttle tells me his Warner Bros, project, based on the book Babe by Robert Creamer, will be made as an NBC-TV movie. Shooting will start when John Goodman finishes this season of Roseanne." Another item a few weeks later said, "Lyttle and Goodman will be doing the project for NBC with a script by current Emmy nominee Michael de Guzman.... Goodman has given his definite 'yes' to the project...."
Wow, I thought, maybe it will happen. Similar items kept popping up in the papers. Geez, I thought, John Goodman.
I had mixed feelings about Goodman. I was delighted that someone was going ahead with a movie on the Babe and that a big name was starring in it, but John Goodman? Trust Hollywood to cast a great big fat guy as Babe Ruth. Clichè heaven. Probably have hot dogs draped all over him. I mean, the Babe was overweight, but he wasn't all that fat. You don't bat .341 at the age of 37 and score 120 runs if you're built like a Duroc sow.
Still, Goodman was a big name, and he was set to go. Filming was supposed to start in the spring of 1991, and sure enough, when spring came around I had a phone call from a man named Bob Markowitz, who was to direct the film. Markowitz said there were a couple of things about the Babe that he wanted to go over with me, and we had a long, pleasant conversation. Toward the end I said I was glad that Goodman was playing Ruth, although, I said, "John Goodman is probably the only actor who has to go on a crash diet to get down to Babe Ruth's weight." I chuckled at my keen wit.
Markowitz didn't laugh. "We don't have Goodman," he said.
"What?" I cried. "What do you mean, you don't have Goodman? I keep reading about him playing Babe Ruth. What do you mean, you don't have Goodman?"
"We thought we had him," Markowitz said. "Universal is doing a Babe Ruth feature film for the theaters, and Goodman's going to be in that one."
I was shaken. There it goes, right down the toilet. Lyttle told me he had offered Goodman $500,000 to play Babe in the TV movie, but he'd heard Universal had offered him "millions." Goodman took the money and ran. Or waddled.
Markowitz wasn't sure who would be picked to play Ruth in the TV production, so a few days later I phoned him to suggest a couple of possibilities. Markowitz sounded a little tired. "I'm not directing the film," he said.
"What?" I cried. I was running low on whats. I don't know the details, but a younger man named Mark Tinker, who had won an Emmy for directing an episode of St. Elsewhere, took Markowitz's place. It was early spring, and filming was about to start. An actor named Stephen Lang was to play the role of Babe Ruth.
I didn't know who Stephen Lang was, but when I asked around, people kept saying, "Stephen Lang? He's a great actor. He was nominated for a Tony." Someone said Lang was going to play Hamlet on Broadway in 1992.
Oh great, I thought. First we had a fat guy, now we have Hamlet. And I kept hearing about the Goodman version, already shooting scenes in Chicago.
I went to California and met Lyttle. I expected a typecast Hollywood producer, heavy, middle-aged, enigmatic, cigar-smoking (I hadn't yet heard about the Softball game with Tartikoff). But Lyttle turned out to be a trim, energetic, good-looking 42-year-old. If you were casting about for an actor to play Lyttle, you would pick Alan Alda. Sharp, intense face, restless mind, quick reactions.
He drove me out to Ontario, an eastern suburb of Los Angeles, where they were shooting scenes in a local ballpark that resembled the old-fashioned stadiums of the 1920s and 1930s. We parked in a lot behind the third base side of the grandstand in a cluster of film-company trucks and trailers. As we walked toward a gate into the park I heard cheers, baseball cheers, a baseball crowd making noise, and I instinctively hurried my steps, the way you do when you come into a ballpark after a game has begun. I didn't want to miss anything. We came out onto the field near third base, and beyond a big camera crane I could see a pitcher throwing, a catcher, an umpire, a white-shirted crowd cheering and, my God, there was Babe Ruth at bat! I swear, that was my reaction: There's Babe Ruth!
Off camera, Lang, who is 39, looks like an actor made up to play the Babe. In action, he moves like the Babe, stands like the Babe, runs like the Babe, swaggers like the Babe, waves his hat and grins like the Babe. I couldn't help feeling that when people see the theater version they'll say, "There's John Goodman," but when they see Lang on the TV screen they'll react the way I did and say, "There's Babe Ruth!"
In the scenes I watched, Lang caught the flavor of the boisterous, flamboyant, sometimes sensitive, sometimes self-pitying man Ruth was. All good actors are mimics, and Lang had spent hours listening to tapes and watching old film clips of Ruth, picking up mannerisms and gestures, catching the rhythms and tones of his speech. Between scenes Lang was loud, lively, funny, a little brash. Perhaps he's that way all the time, or perhaps, like a Method actor, he had immersed himself in the role. He had gone to sec Ruth's birthplace, and he had visited Ruth's grave. He took his 10-year-old daughter, Lucy, and her friend Sarah with him when he visited the grave. "We brought daisies and roses," Lang said. "Someone had already put a peanut on the grave, which seemed right. I sprinkled a little Skoal around, because the Babe liked snuff, and then we sang two choruses of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. The girls were crying when we finished, and I was about to."
At one point Mark Tinker, the director, a tall, blond 40-year-old, wondered aloud what Ruth was really like. I was startled when Lang quoted from memory a passage in a letter written by the erudite Waite Hoyt, Ruth's old teammate: "Yet there was buried in Ruth a humanitarianism beyond belief, an intelligence he was never given credit for, a childish desire to be over-virile, living up to credits given his home-run power—and yet a need for intimate affection and respect."
"To me," Lang said, "that's the central thing about Ruth."
Lang is a natural righthander, but he was taught to hit lefthanded by Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who was on the set. "I enjoy working with him," Carew said. "He's pretty good." One day they were trying to film a home run. A long fly ball would serve the camera as a homer, but Lang kept hitting hard, flat line drives. Frank Pace, the producer (Lyttle is properly the executive producer, the top dog), was standing with Lyttle behind the camera. After each line drive Tinker would yell, "Cut. Let's try it again." Carew went to the plate after one take and spoke quietly to Lang, moving the actor's hands slightly, adjusting the angle of the bat.
"He hit a fly yesterday that went 350 feet," Lyttle said. "Unbelievable."
Lang whacked another line drive, and Pace said, "He's hitting ropes today."
"But he's supposed to be a home run hitter," Lyttle complained.
"He had more than twice as many singles as he had home runs," Pace said, somehow defending both Lang and Ruth in the one "he."
Then Lang caught hold of one and belted a long fly ball. "He really hit that one!" someone cried, and the extras in the grandstand whooped and hollered just as though the Babe himself had hit the ball. Later, Lang was filmed rounding third and winking at the third base coach. He was filmed crossing home plate, trotting to the dugout, lifting his cap to the roaring crowd. He was filmed trying to stretch a single into a double and then raising hell with an umpire when he was called out.
It was fun to watch. Baseball purists criticize baseball movies for small anachronisms and other deviations from what Mark Twain called the petrified truth, but I don't think that matters nearly as much as getting essential things right—in this case an accurate sense of the Babe and a genuine feeling for the game.
Inevitably, there will be a dissenting opinion on the movie's version of the famous "called shot" home run. On the chance that someone reading this has never heard of Babe's called shot, let me explain that it happened (or didn't happen) at Wrigley Field in Chicago during the 1932 World Series between the Yankees and the Cubs. One school of thought holds that when Ruth came to bat in the fifth inning of the third game he pointed to the centerfield bleachers and then hit a home run to the spot he had pointed to. Others say baloney, it never happened, the story is pure hokum.
The called-shot homer was not even in the TV movie at first. "But how could we leave it out?" Pace said. "Larry and I went around and around on it, and finally we put it in. Some people said, 'You can't be sure he pointed.' I said, 'The Yankee guys say he pointed, the Cub guys say he didn't. This movie is about Babe Ruth, so he points. When we do the Charlie Root story, he won't point.' " (Charlie Root, by the way, was the Chicago pitcher, and he went to his grave swearing that Ruth did not point.)
"Look," Pace said, "the main thing is, Ruth delivered. He hit one. This guy always delivered."
When Goodman left the TV film the publicity bubble went with him. and it had to be pumped up again. The script had Ty Cobb appearing in a couple of scenes, and Pace had an idea.
"This is the man," Lyttle said, putting his hand on Pace's shoulder, "who got me Pete Rose. This guy came to my office and said, 'Do you have the balls to hire Pete Rose to play Ty Cobb?' Within 24 hours we'd done the deal."
Signing Rose to play Cobb was a publicity coup, to be sure. When commissioner Fay Vincent, citing Rose's banishment from baseball, declared that Pete could not wear a uniform in the him, the publicity doubled.
"We argued with them," Lyttle said, "but we had to give in. We killed an on-field scene and beefed up a hotel scene in which Cobb and Ruth appear in civilian clothes.
"Not good enough, they said. They didn't want Rose in the movie at all. That was too much. We told them you're getting into First Amendment stuff now. That quieted things down, and Pete's in the movie. But in civilian clothes."
News stories about Vincent's refusing to let Rose wear a baseball uniform were on radio and television all over the country, and the media flocked around when Pete arrived in Cleveland on July 2 to do his cameo role. Filming had shifted to Cleveland's Municipal Stadium because Yankee Stadium scenes couldn't be done in the older-looking ballpark in California, and they couldn't be done in Yankee Stadium itself because a labor dispute in New York City had halted most on-location filmmaking there.
The set for Rose's hotel scene was constructed in the cavernous area under Municipal Stadium's rightfield stands, and Rose was on the set by 7 a.m. to be made up. His bristly hair was slicked down in proper 1920s style, and he wore a high, old-fashioned collar and tie, with the brass collar button showing. Lang and Rose rehearsed together, and then the scene was shot several times from different angles.
Rose was really impressive. He knew his lines and delivered them easily. When Tinker suggested a slight change in tone or pace, Rose followed the suggestions without difficulty. Afterward, Pete revealed the secret of his acting prowess to the inquiring media. "I've done a lot of commercials," he said. "I do what the director tells me to do."
Throughout his brief stay in Cleveland, Rose was smooth and poised. Maybe it was a calculated plan, a conscious effort to project a new, humble, caring Rose. Whatever the reason, he handled an edgy situation skillfully. He refused to criticize Vincent or baseball and said only admiring things about Bart Giamatti.
"The last thing I want is any problem with the commissioner of baseball," Rose said. "If I'm told I can wear a uniform, I wear it. If they say no uniform, I don't wear it. I made some mistakes and I've paid for them, and all I'm trying to do now is go ahead with my life."
Then Rose was finished and gone, and the next day the film itself was finished, except for the arduous task of editing the thousands of feet of film into a compact, coherent whole. I haven't seen the completed movie yet, and I don't know how good it will be. The critics may savage it, there's no way of knowing. But I'll be surprised if (here are false notes in it. The people doing the film all seemed to understand that Babe Ruth was more than just a big, gluttonous slob who dropped out of a tree with a baseball bat in his hands. And they certainly knew baseball.
During one break in the action, when cameras were being shifted around for a dugout scene, Pace, wearing a baseball glove and cap, went to the mound in Municipal Stadium and began throwing breaking pitches to Bruce Weitz, the former Hill Street Blues actor who plays Ruth's manager in the film and who, as a boy in Connecticut, played second base on a team that went to the Little League World Series. ("And we won," Weitz said.) In short left, Lyttle and Tinker were hitting long fungoes toward the empty seats down the leftfield line.
"What in the world are they doing?" I asked.
Lang grinned. "They're playing home run derby," he said.
I left Cleveland feeling the Babe was in good hands.