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The Many Faces of Babe Ruth

Getty Images / Western Reserve Historical Society / Louis Van Oeyen

The Many Faces of Babe Ruth

Today in 1948, Babe Ruth gave his final farewell at Yankee Stadium. But he never really said goodbye, his likeness a constant feature on screens big and small since he put down his bat.

George Herman Ruth Jr. won four World Series, set single-season and career home run records and has been called the greatest baseball player in history. But today he's less remembered for his onfield achievements than revered as an icon of bygone Americana. The nostalgia and myth-making that started taking place during his life stretched through the whole of the 20th century and shows little sign of abating during the 21st. Here are some of the more notable Babes to hit screens big and small.

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Maybe it's cheating a bit, but our favorite onscreen Ruth might just be the Babe himself, who is credited as playing Babe Ruth onscreen some half a dozen times. Most of these were shorts (including one he made with silent comedy legend Harold Lloyd), but The Pride of the Yankees was a feature-length film about the life and career of Lou Gehrig. The film starred Gary Cooper as Gehrig – a tough role as Cooper had never even seen a baseball game in person before, let alone played the sport. Ruth was not the only Yankee to play himself in the film – fellow ballplayers appearing in the movie include Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig and Bob Meusel. Ruth's performance as himself was praised by Time magazine for its "fidelity and considerable humor." The movie was nominated for 10 Oscars and, in a 2008 American Film Institute poll voters ranked it as the 3rd best sports movie of all time.

The Babe Ruth Story (1948)

And on the other end of the sports biopic spectrum we find The Babe Ruth Story, which some critics have labeled as one of the worst sports biopics ever produced. Rushed onto the screens, the film was released just months shy of Ruth's death Aug. 16, 1948, and the man himself attended the premiere in one of his last public acts before being hospitalized for the final time. The Babe was played by William Bendix, an actor chiefly known for playing heavies in film noirs such as 1942's The Glass Key and chosen perhaps for his strong resemblance to Ruth.

The Babe (1992)

While The Babe Ruth Story is unabashed hagiography, The Babe shows Ruth in a more nuanced light. Starring John Goodman, the film touches upon Ruth's alcoholism, inner demons and late-career disappointments. Goodman has since stated that he was unhappy with his own performance as the Sultan of Swat. Audiences shared his lack of enthusiasm and the film flopped at the box office.

61*

Though the HBO film doesn't actually feature Babe Ruth as a character, the movie uses his legacy as a lynchpin, based as it is on the battle between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961 to break Ruth's 1927 single-season record of 60 home runs. Directed by Yankees superfan Billy Crystal, the movie shows how many Yankees fans didn't feel Maris in particular was a worthy heir to the King of Swing's title. Baseball commissioner and Ruth ghostwriter Ford Frick (played by Donald Moffat) also acts to protect Ruth's record by declaring that unless the record is broken in 154 games (the number it took Ruth to accomplish the feat in 1927) it will enter the record books with an asterisk. Maris did finally eclipse Ruth's mark, and no asterisk was entered into the books. (That same record, incidentally, was later beaten by both Mark McGwire, who publicly admitted using steroids, and Barry Bonds, who was convicted of lying to a grand jury during the government's investigation of steroid use in Major League Baseball.) Ruth does make an appearance in 61* in a roundabout way, with actor E.E. Bell playing a Yankees fan who impersonates Ruth and heckles Maris from the stands. The film also features a voiceover by longtime Yankees announcer Bob Sheppard, who died last year at the age of 99.

More Babe Ruths

Ruth has been a favorite of animators, too, having appeared in animated form in Casper, Animaniacs, The Simpsons, and an as-yet-unreleased feature film called Henry and Me (voiced by actor Chazz Palminteri). Also upcoming – Jeff Garlin's performance as The Babe in The Keeper of the Pinstripes, slated to hit screens in 2012.

Most of us weren't around to see Ruth's goodbye in Yankee Stadium all those years ago – but that's OK. He looks to be sticking around for a good while longer.