There has never been a worse sports movie than "The Babe Ruth Story," the 1948 film in which William Bendix portrayed baseball's Great Bambino. Not only was much of it fantasy, but Ruth swung bats bigger than Bendix.
At least NBC's new "Babe Ruth" is an improvement over that, although hardly very distinguished. It airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 4, 36 and 39, with Stephen Lang performing credibly as baseball's epic slugger and pot-bellied party boy.
His swaggering, carousing Ruth is as unheroic off the field as he is heroic on, an arrogant, self-involved, womanizing, big-boozing boor who shows up inebriated for games, is an indifferent husband and father and responds less emotionally to his first wife's miscarriage than to being named captain of the Yankees.
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.
Michael de Guzman's script includes Ruth feuds with Yankee Manager Miller Huggins (Bruce Weitz) and Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert (Donald Moffat) and the inevitable sequence showing the Babe calling his shot before slugging one over the centerfield fence.
Some of "Babe Ruth" seems almost quaint compared with baseball of today. For example, there is Babe in 1922 pouting about hitting just 35 home runs that season. These days an outfielder can become a millionaire without hitting 35 homers in his entire career.
Another sequence, showing Ruth returning to his old Catholic school and then generously hitting fly balls to the sad little boy he finds sitting alone inside, carries the aroma of fiction.
It's not dramatic license or Mark Tinker's direction but the subject that makes "Babe Ruth" only mildly watchable, however. As depicted here, he's a modestly smart, simple man whose life consists solely of playing off and on the field. Despite his baseball exploits, he's just not very interesting or charismatic here, and even his reportedly intriguing rivalry with Lou Gehrig (Neal McDonough) and relationship with his second wife, Claire (Lisa Zane), are vague and uncompelling.
"Babe Ruth" ends abruptly, followed by a listing of his statistics, as if they were the summation of his life. If so, it was an empty life and one unworthy of this much attention.