By Eddie Gold
Babe Ruth is seated in a bistro. A waiter takes his order. William Bendix, wearing a putty-flattened Ruth nose, orders milk.
Babe Ruth??? Milk???
That scene was enough to curdle "The Babe Ruth Story," a cheaply made production of the great slugger's life.
And Ty Cobb doesn't fare any better. In 1916, Cobb was coaxed out to Hollywood to star in a movie titled "Somewhere in Georgia." Ward Morehouse, a noted Broadway critic, remembered it as "absolutely the worst movie I ever saw."
The plot was so thin, Morehouse said, that all he could remember about it was that Cobb was attacked by goons, tied up, and made his escape just in time to race to the ball park on a mule and save the old ball game for the home team. "It was simply awful," Morehouse said.
Most baseball films are also bombs at the box-office. The possible exceptions were "Damn Yankees," which was more of a musical, and the delightful "Bad News Bears," which inspired several weak sequels and a brutal short-lived TV series.
"Bang The Drum Slowly" was acclaimed by Time magazine as the "best sports movie ever made." But it was no runaway success financially. "It was not just a baseball movie," said Maurice Rosenfield, the film's producer. "It's about people who happen to be baseball players. They're young and vigorous, and one of them is dying. There were no big names in the film and Paramount didn't do much in promotions," added Rosenfield. "It did well in New York and other urban areas, but little elsewhere."
Rosenfield first thought of doing the film while he was recuperating from a heart attack. He reread Mark Harris' novel and wondered why it had never been made into a movie. "It wasn't easy tracking down novelist Harris," revealed Rosenfield, who heads Chicago radio station WAIT. "I finally ran him down at the California Institute of Art in Valencia, Calif., where he is a teacher of English Literature.
"We inquired about movie options on the book and were somewhat surprised to find out that it had been under option for 16 years. We finally acquired the rights and set about for a director and a cast. My wife, Lois, surprised everyone with her ability to cast actors. She came up with the idea of using the little-known Robert DeNiro to play Bruce Pearson, the young catcher dying of Hodgkins Disease. He was kicking around New York, jobless.
"For the director, I remembered a TV program, a filler between football games. It was about some middle-aged men playing football in Central Park. I though it had the right kind of feel. I contacted John Hancock, who put our film together from there.
"We shot the film in Clearwater, Fla., and used Shea and Yankee Stadiums. After the music was added and the film was edited, `Bang The Drum Slowly' was released in the fall of 1973," said Rosenfield. The movie had a budget of around $950,000 and barely made a profit.
If "Bang The Drum Slowly" was the best baseball flick, undoubtedly the worst was "The Kid From Cleveland," starring Bill Veeck, Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau and the rest of the 1948 Indians' championship team. The plot concerns a juvenile delinquent who is befriended by the players. He does a few dastardly deeds and when the Indians go to bat for him, the youth (Russ Tamblyn) mends his ways.
"I would like to buy every print of the film and burn it," said Boudreau. "All we received was a box lunch. Boy, that picture was a dog." Veeck chuckled at the very mention of the film. "I have one unwritten law at home that I adhere to," revealed Veeck. "I never allow my kids to mention or see that abortion."
Of the film biographies, "Pride of the Yankees," starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, was the standout. Former Chicago Cubs coach Peanuts Lowrey, who grew up in Culver City, Calif., the home of MGM, played third base in the film and recalls some of the problems.
"Coop wasn't much of an athlete," said Lowrey. "He was a natural right-handed batter and encountered difficulty batting lefty. But he practiced by chopping wood."
Director Sam Wood selected Cooper for the role even though he was lean and lanky, while Gehrig was stocky. Although he was awkward at bat and afield, his final scene when he considers himself "the luckiest man on the face of this earth," was especially moving.
Babe Ruth played himself and was a natural ham. There were other old Yankee stars in the film, including Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel and Mark Koenig. And when Gehrig is taken out of the lineup after 2,130 consecutive games, manager Joe McCarthy scans the dugout and says, "Dahlgren, take first." Up pops Rip Russell, a one-time Cub.
Wood used the same schtick in "The Stratton Story." Instead of an incurable disease, Jimmy Stewart, as White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, loses a leg in a hunting accident.
Lowrey again had a Peanut-sized role. "Stewart, like Cooper, was awkward," said Lowrey, "and all but the close-up scenes were by ballplayers." Besides Lowrey, there were such players as Johnny Lindell, Gene Bearden and Jess Dobernic. "In one scene they needed someone to catch the ball and tumble over," said Lowrey. "They hired an ex-football player and he broke a leg on his first try. I volunteered and did a perfect tumble. But when the movie was released, that scene tumbled on the cutting room floor."
The picture is climaxed by a Stratton pitching comeback in an exhibition with the Houston Buffs. In the dramatic ninth inning outfielder Clarence Maddern climbs the wall to haul down a line drive and helps save the game for Stratton. Clarence never did that when he was a Cub.
Lowrey had a bigger role in "The Winning Team," with Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander. Old Alex bent elbows with the best, but Ronnie took a more sober approach to the role by smooching with Doris Day.
"I was the player that plunked Reagan with a ball between the eyes as he was heading for second," said Lowrey. "We used a cotton ball. And when I hit him I shouted, `Look out.' But the director said, `Cut.' He figured I would get an extra $350 for having a speaking role. So we reshot the scene, and after I hit Reagan, I had to look sad and keep my face down as Reagan was sprawled on the ground. Bob Lemon, incidentally, did most of the pitching for Reagan, and I filled in for Frank Lovejoy, who was Rogers Hornsby.
"And when Alex hit the skids and joined the House of David team, I donned a beard along with Hank Sauer, George Metkovich and Al Zarilla for that role. We once broke for lunch and had to eat with our full beards. We then went back on the field with soup-stained beards," added Lowrey.
Baseball purists will wince in the early scenes when an extra steps to the plate as Eddie Collins and bats right-handed. And in the final scene Alexander strikes out the last batter to win the final game of the 1926 World Series. They know that Babe Ruth was out trying to steal second, with Hornsby putting the tag on him.
Among the musicals, "Damn Yankees" was darn good. Tab Hunter played the incurable Senator fan who sells his soul to the devil and becomes slugger Joe Hardy. Tab tags all the homers, but devilish Ray Walston and fetching Gwen Verdon bag all the gags.
Another was "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," which was a takeoff on Tinker-to-Eyers-to-Chance. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munschin play the double play trio. But the film took a dip during Esther Williams' swim scenes.
Comedy and whimsy had their turn at bat in "Rhubarb," a tail-oops, tale about a cat that inherits a ballclub, and "Angels In The Outfield," about an orphan who sees angels on the ball field.
But the most delightful of the gimmick films was "It Happens Every Spring," starring Ray Milland as a college professor who invents a formula that is allergic to wood.
The prof turns pitcher and joins the Cardinals. He rubs the formula into his glove and wins 30 games. Stock footage of the sloppily played 1945 Cubs-Tigers World Series serves as a backdrop.
Following is a list of baseball movies:
Year Title and Stars
1899 Casey At The Bat --
1913 The Shortstop's Double Home Run Baker
1916 Somewhere In Georgia Ty Cobb
1920 Headin' Home Babe Ruth
1922 The Babe Comes Home Babe Ruth
1927 Casey At The Bat Wallace Beery
1927 College Buster Keaton
1928 Speedy Harold Lloyd (Babe Ruth in cameo)
1932 Death On The Diamond Robert Young
1933 Elmer The Great Joe E. Brown
1935 Alibi Ike Joe E.Brown
1941 Pride of the Yankees Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig
1942 It Happened In Flatbush Lloyd Nolan
1947 The Babe Ruth Story William Bendix as Babe Ruth
1948 The Stratton Story James Stewart as Monty Stratton
1949 The Kid From Cleveland Cleveland Indians
1949 Take Me Out To The Ballgame Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly
1949 It Happens Every Spring Ray Milland
1950 Kill The Umpire William Bendix
1950 Jackie Robinson Story Jackie Robinson
1951 Angels In The Outfield Paul Douglas
1952 Rhubarb A cat
1952 Pride of St. Louis Dan Dailey as Dizzy Dean
1952 The Winning Team Ronald Reagan as Alexander
1953 Kid From Left Field Dan Dailey
1957 Damn Yankees Tab Hunter
1957 Fear Strikes Out Anthony Perkins as Jim Piersall
1961 Safe At Home Mantle & Mans
1973 Bang The Drum Slowly Robert DeNiro
1975 Bad News Bears Walter Matthau
1976 Bingo Long's Traveling All-Stars Richard Pryor