Babe Heads Home

Internet offers once rare opportunity to see Babe Ruth in feature film just before he became a national hero. Best part: the movie was made locally at Ruth’s old Haverstraw stomping grounds

BY JOHN MIRABELLA

Special to the Rockland County Times

babe-ruthGrowing up in Haverstraw, N.Y. I, in fact we, as a town, had heard the stories of Babe Ruth making a movie in town. We had heard rumors of where he may have stayed in town. Stories from old-timers of where he played ball, and the occasional photo in the library of Babe on the streets we all know so well were all we knew, but not much more was known. Over the years bits and pieces of the film were occasionally seen in some form or another. Seems even today everyone knows he made a film in Haverstraw, but few have seen it.

Now at 46-years-old*, I finally get to see the movie due to the graces of modern technology, DVD and the Internet (visit www.archive.org/details/Heading_Home and see for yourself). Though it’s a mediocre film, watching the grainy, silent footage, suddenly I am excitedly a tourist in my hometown, trying to place the locales of the 1920 film, Headin’ Home.

Headin’ Home was not a short, but a six-reeler, as it was known, from the silent era produced by Kessel and Baumann. It was also an attempt to capitalize on the Babe’s burgeoning star status. Babe Ruth received $25,000 for this, his first film. The sum was a large amount for the time, and Ruth refused to cash his paycheck and carried it around to show to friends. By the time Ruth had decided to cash his check for the film, the check bounced because of the film’s poor box office results. Ruth shrugged off his loss and kept the check as a memento.

The film tells the story of Babe, who comes from ‘Haverlock’ the altered name for Haverstraw, and who lives with his mother and stepsister Pigtails. The town treats Babe as almost the town buffoon. In a scene borrowed 70 years later by the “The Natural,” Babe when he’s not loafing or eating (his second favorite pastime, next to baseball), whittles baseball bats from trees he’s cut down from what was then and is now Pecks Pond, near a ball field which now bears his name.

While saving Pigtails’ little dog Herman from the local dog catcher, (later borrowed by “The Babe Ruth Story”) and having a crush on a girl, a ne’er do well pitcher arrives as a ringer for the Haverlock team and becomes a competitor for Babe’s girl and her affections. The local barber gets an opposing player drunk, and thus the shunned Babe gets to play for the opposing team, in which he hits the game winning home run. He saves the girl from ruin, somehow becomes a major leaguer, and heads home.

Partially financed by Abe Atell, one of the characters involved in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the movie was to tell the “real” story of Babe’s life up to that point. Filming was done in July and August of 1920. The Babe would take the ferry to New Jersey in the mornings, then drive to Haverstraw some 30 miles north of NYC to film. Then, to the roar of his teammates, return sometimes in makeup and mascara in time for the afternoon games at the Polo Grounds.

The only truth to this fictional comedy is that he did play baseball and he was left-handed. So what’s so fascinating about an obscure movie made 90 years ago. There is the thrill to suddenly see as if ghosts, the Babe, actors and former residents in places I know so well. The adult detective in me, armed with childhood memories, can retrace the movie scenes to figure out exactly where the camera was placed. Things only I could know, who ran and played in those streets. Who knew and visited people who lived in those houses used as shooting locales. The old gate the Babe walks by, the awning that is still on a particular house.

I hear stories from old- timers that still resonate with awe for the first real sports superstar who came to the little hamlet. A superstar who hit a ball while filming that landed at St. Peters church some 500 feet away. I know, I shagged flies there a thousand times.

Headin’ Home will challenge your image of Ruth as an athlete. The image we’ve all acquired from non-fiction, oddly enough, is distorted in part because of brief newsreel footage of Ruth later in his career – iconic and familiar images of him as a hitter, older and heavier.

Headin’ Home was made in 1920, the same year Ruth is sold to the Yankees, his first full year solely as an outfielder. This film shows the rarely seen Ruth at 25 years old. This is Ruth the pitcher, swirling his back towards the hitter, not unlike that of Louis Tiant many years later. This is the Babe without the unbalanced and skewed vision left to us by future writers and moviemakers, who collectively create an image based only on the highs and lows to heighten drama. This is Babe Ruth, not an actor playing a part, but the genuine article himself.

Watching Headin’ Home seems to naturally raise curiosity about the 1920 season itself. For the baseball fan it was an unparalleled year of change. That year the Negro leagues are formed by Rube Foster; the spitball, emery ball and all “trick” pitches will be grandfathered out. On August 22, the Babe films the baseball scenes in Haverstraw, the week before Cleveland ‘s Ray Chapman becomes baseball’s first and only fatality after being beaned by Yankees submariner, Carl Mays – thus begins the throwing out of dark and discolored balls in games. This combined with the new livelier ball makes pitcher’s ERA’s skyrocket.

Four White Sox pitchers will win 20 games that year. George Sisler will bat .407, and collect 257 hits, a record that stood until Ichiro Suzuki hit 262 in a season. Jim Bagby wins 31 games, the last right-hander to win 30 or more until Denny Mclain in 1968. Baseball’s first commissioner is appointed – the necessity brought on by the ongoing trial of eight White Sox players for throwing the 1919 World Series.

In 1920 the “House that Ruth Built” wasn’t even a blueprint. The 60 HR record was seven years away. Yet Headin’ Home captures Ruth in probably his greatest season offensively. He hits 54 HR’s that year and will hit his 100th career home run milestone, bat .376 with a slugging percentage of .847, a record that will last until 2001. He sets a new record of 158 runs scored and drives in 137 runs.

Headin’ Home, rather than just highlighting the year in baseball, speaks to the time it was made. Even a sub- par quality film such as this speaks of the values, attitudes and mores of its time, moreover because it is really the first feature length film about the soon-to-be greatest sports figure in history. We can now stand back and see an important commentary on American culture in 1920.

The fiction in Headin Home, is not mythmaking so much as it is a commentary on Ruth in 1920. Although well known, he was not yet the superstar he was to become. He hadn’t accomplished all we now know him for. If you look for it, it’s possible to see the connection in its fiction as to how the baseball world and indeed the country were thinking of this ballplayer’s gigantic feats. Fans trying to grasp this inhuman performance on the ballfield in real time, and in the process changing the game as they knew it.

Headin’ Home to most who now see it, seems extremely corny. Yet ideas from it reappear over and over again in subsequent films such as the little dog, whittling bats, the breaking of windows on a mammoth shot. What’s different about these later films is also what’s different about the culture itself. Films such as William Bendix in “The Babe Ruth Story” or “The Babe” with John Goodman, are peppered with the real facts of his life, while simultaneously being as outlandishly fictional as Headin’ Home. This combined with comparatively slicker production and superior film technology, in a sense, is ironically more misleading and deceptive.

Headin’ Home premiered in September, and was a flop. The Babe never did cash that check. To this day there is not a good film on Ruth. That lack, and the passage of time ironically make this film more important. Suddenly, this old silent film, obvious and un-blinking in its fiction, seems to gain credibility. Even if tomorrow a quality work is made into a film, Headin’ Home will always be a testament to its time. It’s fortunate that we have the only film made during that small window of time while he was still an active player, with the man himself. Later films and society in general, will move towards the biography aspect of our heroes. Where they come from, both emotionally and physically will be par for the course. What makes them tick, what drives them.

For me I get a kick out of knowing where the Babe walked in town, that I lived for a while, in the house used as his home in the movie, that for a short while a great ballplayer, would as a microcosm, do to a town, what he was about to do on a bigger stage. I like the film, even if not many do, I like that I have this connection to the Babe. Did he really hit that ball to St Peter’s Church? Was that really 500 ft? “Sure, I know, I shagged flies there a thousand times.”

* this piece was originally published in 2010