Posts Tagged ‘William Bendix’

The Men Who Portrayed Babe Ruth

Friday, February 17th, 2017

To say that Babe Ruth was a dominant force is like saying that Mount Vesuvius spewed a little lava.

Firmly stands the Babe in popular culture, in part because of portrayals in films.  “The pattern of the drama, with its Horatio Alger stamp—rags to riches and romance—is obviously contrived, and the personal characterizations are all of them second-grade stock,” wrote the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther of the 1948 movie The Babe Ruth Story.   “Mr. [William] Bendix is straight from the smoke-house and Claire Trevor pulls all the heart-throb stops as a little showgirl who marries the great man and sticks by through thick and thin.”

Bendig was a character actor famed for “playing all manner of lugs, both loveable and dangerous,” according to his biography on the Turner Classic Movies web site.  Credits include the Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat, the Abbott & Costello movie Who Done It?, and the 1964 thriller Seven Days in May.  Perhaps Bendix’s best-known role was the title character in the 1950s television series The Life of Riley.

Babe Ruth, a 1991 NBC tv-movie, starred Stephen Lang as the Babe, Donald Moffat as Jacob Ruppert, and Bruce Weitz as Miller Huggins.  Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times lauded, “Lang has some of the size to play Ruth and, with tutoring from Rod Carew, the right-handed actor has developed a fairly convincing left-handed stroke and, with makeup, a prominent nose to match.”  Richard Huff of Variety also praised Lang—“he does his job convincingly.”

Art LaFleur played Babe Ruth in a dream sequence in the 1994 film The Sandlot.  Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, the best player on his sandlot baseball team, has a dream in which he talks with the Yankee slugger, who offers him advice on confronting “The Beast,” a dog guarding the house belonging to the baseball field’s neighbor; balls are gone forever when the kids hit them over the fence.  One particular ball poses a major problem for Scotty Smalls, a newcomer who’s unfamiliar with baseball—he brings a ball owned by his stepfather to the sandlot; it’s signed by Babe Ruth.  When Benny hits it over the fence, it’s gone forever.  Presumably.

Ruth’s ghost counsels Benny, “Everybody gets one chance to do something great.  Most people never take the chance, either ’cause they’re too scared or they don’t recognize it when it spits on their shoes.  This is your big chance, and you shouldn’t let it go by.  Remember when you busted the guts out of the ball the other day?  Someone’s telling you something, kid.  If I was you, I’d listen.”

As Ruth disappears, he offers final words of inspiration:  “Remember, kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends.  Heroes get remembered.  But legends never die.  Follow your heart, kid.  And you’ll never go wrong.”

Eventually, “The Beast” is discovered to be a friendly, humongous dog named Hercules.  His owner is a former Negro League ballplayer, portrayed by James Earl Jones.

In the 1992 film The Babe, John Goodman embodied the Sultan of Swat.  Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote that Goodman was “ideally cast.”  In an interview with Clifford Terry of the Chicago Tribune, Goodman offered insight to Ruth’s boisterous, almost childlike nature.  “I don’t think the Babe had an underlying meanness,” said Goodman.  “It was maybe an emptiness in the middle.  I read an interesting quote that I tried to use as much as I could.  Somebody who knew him quite well was asked about him, and he said, ‘You know, I don’t think Babe ever loved anybody in his life.’  I based most everything on Robert Creamer’s outstanding … biography.  For example, I watched a lot of old film, but I could never figure out how to do Ruth’s home-run trot until I read a simple description of it in the book, and I was in.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 6, 2016.

Now Pitching for the New York Yankees

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

There is another kind of pitching in baseball, one that has nothing to do with curveballs, strikeouts, or a catcher’s signs.  Pitching products is a cornerstone of the National Pastime.  As a spokesman, a baseball player uses his fame, personality, and excellence on the baseball diamond as currency of credibility in endorsing products.  The New York Yankees organization, in particular, boasts a deep roster of product endorsers.

Products.  Promotion.  Pinstripes.

Joe DiMaggio, for example, encouraged people to save at The Bowery Savings Bank.  It was, quite simply, a New York City baseball institution aligning with a New York City financial institution.  Appearing in television commercials from 1972 to 1992, DiMaggio translated his confidence in his hitting ability to his confidence in the best place for New Yorkers to park cash.  Mr. Coffee also benefited from DiMaggio’s skills as a pitch man.

Another former Yankee endorsed a company in the financial arena during his post-playing career.  Phil Rizzuto brought his enthusiasm in broadcasting Yankee games to television commercials for The Money Store, an alternative to traditional banking based in New Jersey.  The Money Store specialized in loans.

Reggie Jackson promoted his eponymous candy bar, though he claims the genesis of the idea was steeped in humor rather than ego.  In the 2013 book Becoming Mr. October, Jackson explains, “When I was still playing in Baltimore in 1976, I said, ‘ If I played in New York, they’d name a candy bar after me.’  I said it as a joke.  That same year, I was in Milwaukee, and I said, ‘I can’t come here.  There are only two newspapers and I don’t drink.’  All in the spirit of fun.

“When I went to New York, all summer Matt Merola kept calling every candy company he knew, asking, ‘Do you want to do a Reggie bar?’  He called every company, and the last one he called was Standard Brands—and they took the bait!  I got $250,000 a year for five years and a furnished apartment at Seventy-ninth and Fifth.”

Yogi Berra used his trademark double-speak in a television commercial for Aflac.  Naturally, the Aflac duck is confused by Yogi’s logic.  But Yogi may be better remembered as the spokesman for Yoo-Hoo.

Derek Jeter has appeared in television commercials for Ford, VISA, and Fleet before it merged with Bank of America.  Babe Ruth promoted Red Rock Cola, Mickey Mantle cried for his Maypo, and Lou Gehrig hawked Huskies cereal.  Mariano Rivera is synonymous with Acura.

Certainly, the Yankees ball club is not the only source of celebrity athlete endorsers.  It is, however, an unparalleled source.  And the string of commercialized Yankees includes portrayers in pinstripes.  Taking advantage of his title role in the 1948 film The Babe Ruth Story, William Bendix donned a Yankees uniform for a Chesterfield cigarettes magazine advertisement.

Advertising allows a product owner to align the product with credibility.  The Yankees offer credibility backed by excellence.  They make the buyer feel an emotional bond with the product based on the supposition that if a member of the most storied team in baseball endorses the product, then it must be worth having.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 2, 2014.

Whose Life Story Is It Anyway?

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

The life story genre is a staple of baseball films.

Fear Strikes Out depicted the anxieties of Jimmy Piersall.  William Bendix and John Goodman played Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story and The Babe, respectively.  42 spotlighted Jackie Robinson’s story of breaking into the major leagues.  The Pride of the Yankees showcased Lou Gehrig’s personal and professional lives.  It is either a baseball story with a love story as a backdrop, or vice versa.

Jimmy Stewart played Monty Stratton in The Stratton Story.  Ronald Reagan, known throughout his film and political career because of his portrayal as George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All-American, added a baseball role to his roster of credits when he portrayed Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team.

Ballplayers are heroes on the diamond, but they are also, nonetheless, human.  Stratton overcame an injury to his leg caused by a gunshot while hunting.  Robinson endured hatred in the form of racial taunts baked into a public attitude about minorities.  His inner strength pushed him to excellence in spite of horrific opposition in discrimination, bigotry, and human indecency.  Gehrig, of course, symbolized courage in the face of a debilitating disease, proclaiming himself to be “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” while his physical ability diminished.

These stories go beyond mere entertainment.  They are inspiring because they are real.  Overcoming a tragedy is a cornerstone of drama.  Writers and producers face a challenge in offering stories with a baseball theme—depicting the tale on film or on television may require sacrificing time for the sport to give more time to the story.  In his review of The Pride of the Yankees for the New York Times, noted film critic Bosley Crowther underscored this point.  “Furthermore, sports fans will protest, with reason on their side, that a picture about a baseball player should have a little more baseball in it,” wrote Crowther.  “Quite true, this one has considerable footage showing stands and diamonds of the American League, with Lou at bat, running bases and playing the initial bag.  What is shown is accurate.  But it is only shown in glimpses or montage sequences, without catching much of the flavor or tingling excitement of a tight baseball game.  Fans like to know what’s the inning, how many are on and how many out.  At least, the score.”

Facts are public domain for a life story.  For example, Lou Gehrig’s estate has no legal recourse for a Gehrig life story indicating that Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games.  But there will need to be agreements regarding Gehrig’s image, Major League Baseball trademarks, photographs, and film footage in a visual representationfilm, television, cartoon, book, comic book, art, merchandising, arcade game, and computer game.  Terms will include limitations on the use and the crediting of the material.

When the producers of a life story seek to incorporate material from a copyrighted work, then a license agreement will be  sought.  Another option is contracting for the right to create a new work based on the original copyrighted work.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 15, 2013.