Many baseball fans already know about how Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season, apparently to fund his production of the play My Lady Friends in 1920, which became Frazee’s musical, No, No, Nanette, in 1925. But the superstar he sold did some acting of his own. I don’t know when Babe Ruth first appeared on stage or before the movie cameras, but sometime between the end of the 1919 World Series and the start of the 1920 season he had the starring turn in a movie called Headin’ Home. (Strangely enough, in January 1920 the New York Times reported him only playing golf in the Los Angeles area, and said “he has not yet gone into the movies, as reported,” which is just more proof that newspapers aren’t the final arbiters of truth.) This silent movie was released in September 1920, in time for the Babe to have fueled anticipation for it with his massive hitting displays at New York’s Polo Grounds.
I came across Headin’ Home about a month ago, as the feature item in a two-DVD set of early baseball movies called Reel Baseball. It’s 73 minutes long, and the plot is both folkloric and bewildering: Babe is living in Haverlock, a made-up small town, with his elderly mother and a young foster sister named Pigtails. He lives to play baseball and win the heart of Mildred Tobin, the daughter of town banker Cyrus Tobin. Tobin has hired a young pitcher named Harry Knight to pitch for the Haverlock team and work for his bank. There’s a love triangle between Babe, Knight, and Mildred, with her father preferring Knight to Babe. Knight is secretly embezzling money from the old man’s bank, making him the villainous counter to the virtuous but hapless Babe. When the day of the big game with Haverlock’s rival, Highland, arrives, Knight convinces Cyrus to keep Babe off the team, so the Highland manager hires Babe as the replacement for his pitcher, who’s in a drunken stupor and can’t pitch. Babe hits the game-winning homer for Highland, brings Cyrus’s prodigal son, John, back home, saves Mildred from the vicious Knight, and, at the end of the movie, is starring with the Yankees in real 1920 game footage from the Polo Grounds.
In Headin’ Home, Ruth plays a small-town boy, a hick from the countryside; he doesn’t recreate his real-life childhood as a rough Baltimore kid. He’s naïve, pure-hearted, and innocent: at one point, he actually takes a stick of hickory from the forest and whittles it down to make his bat. Despite his game-winning performance, at first the Babe “can’t play ball—until he gets mad one day and knocks his first home run, through a church window five blocks away,” as the New York Times put it in its review.
Interestingly, the character of Harry Knight includes cheating at dice as well as stealing from the bank: he’s portrayed as a grasping, faithless scoundrel without scruples. Knight would clearly throw a game if given the chance, and his character reminded me that the Black Sox scandal unfolded in September 1920, just as Headin’ Home was coming to the screen. In fact, it opened a week-long run at Madison Square Garden on the 19th to a 10,000-strong audience, and on the 28th, Shoeless Joe Jackson confessed to throwing the 1919 World Series. I don’t know to what degree the myth that the Babe saved baseball after the Black Sox scandal is true, but it’s uncanny how this folkloric movie showing him as a plain-hearted hero from the countryside was released the same month that the Sox players were confessing to the corruption of the national sport.
Along with being virtuous, the Babe Ruth of Headin’ Home is also pretty silly and boyish much of the time, and even though the movie’s technically a melodrama, the subtitles furnished by Bugs Baer, a sports humorist of the day, relentlessly undercut any sense of pompousness. Some samples: “Almira Worters thought Babe wuz the handsomest man in town. Haverlock ain’t a big town.”; “Love makes you go through fire and water. Marriage throws water on the fire”; “Babe stayed in Hillsdale long enough to get out. He rose to fame like a comet with two tails.”
In real life, the Babe was, of course, not innocent. He was promised $50,000 for the movie from producers Kessel and Bauman, got $15,000, and went to court to collect the missing $35,000. Boxing promoter Tex Rickard was said to pay $35,000 to screen Headin’ Home at Madison Square Garden. And, in its review of Headin’ Home, Variety (it called the movie “atrocious”) noted that everything “from Babe Ruth phonograph records to the Babe Ruth song, ‘Oh You Babe Ruth,’ which . . . accompanied the picture” was for sale at the Garden. It was apparently the first and, so far as I know, last time Madison Square Garden has been used as a movie venue.
Previously, at the end of August 1920, Ruth had filed another lawsuit and obtained an injunction against a company that was illicitly showing him in game action for a film called Over the Fence. The Babe, who obviously wanted to clear the way for his upcoming movie, asked for $1 million in damages and claimed that as “the greatest home-run batter known to the baseball profession” he was now a public character like the President or a war hero. He lost that lawsuit the next February.
The modern-day equivalent of Headin’ Home might be a movie with Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez emerging from the slums of the Dominican Republic to become a star, win financial security for his extended family, and display his virtue and heroism in the process, all while serving as the foil for continuing jokes. The fact that such a movie is practically unimaginable reminds us of how much has changed in the last 90 years. You can take a look at the Babe, with his rounded face and baggy uniform, choking up on the bat and starring in the first full-length baseball movie I know of to feature an actual player, here: http://www.archive.org/details/Heading_Home