Babe Ruth and 3 Other Athletes Who Took to Hollywood Early

In a modern universe where the worlds of sports and entertainment are constantly colliding, it’s easy to think of the athlete-turned-actor as a modern invention. The concept, however, has been around as long as the movie and television industry has. Athletes have been married to the world of Hollywood for longer than most of us have been alive, and these are some of the most memorable appearances by athletes on the silver screen of yesteryear. 

Babe Ruth smiling while opening letters, image in black and white
Babe Ruth | Allsport Hulton/Archive/Getty Images

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Babe Ruth starred in many movies

Babe Ruth is the most famous athlete of the early 20th century. As baseball’s first home run slugger, Ruth took over the sporting world and became a household face and name before there was even television to broadcast his games. He started his career around the same time that full-length motion pictures began gaining steam and eventually rode that medium to theaters everywhere. 

Ruth appeared in several short films over the years as both himself and other characters, but he also starred in several full-length productions, according to Baseball is My Life. In 1920s Headin’ Home, Ruth played a country boy who everybody mocked until he was discovered to have serious baseball skills. In 1928’s Speedy, a cab driver who is obsessed with baseball gets starstruck when he’s tasked with delivering The Great Bambino to Yankee Stadium in time for a game. 

Finally, in the years following his historic career, Ruth played himself in The Pride of the Yankees. This biopic of Lou Gehrig followed the Hall of Famer as he made his way into professional baseball only to be struck down by ALS, a disease which is now known by many as Lou Gehrig’s disease. While Ruth was a pioneer of the medium, he was far from the only athlete who tested himself on the silver screen. 

Johnny Weissmuller might be more famous for his roles

In a departure from Ruth’s recognizable place in sports, Johnny Weissmuller might be more famous for the character he played on-screen than his five gold medals as a swimmer. Capitalizing on both his star power during the early 1930s and the physicality needed to do outrageous stunt work, Weissmuller helped popularize Tarzan, the famed jungle-dwelling character who was raised by animals, according to IMDb.

Weissmuller made a career out of playing Tarzan, appearing in over a dozen films throughout his career. This also gave birth to another franchise in Jungle Jim, in which Weissmuller played a similar character. 

Ty Cobb starred in a lost film

Ty Cobb is known for his hitting on the baseball diamond more than his on-screen career, but that didn’t stop him from trying his hands at acting. Outside of a cameo in the original Angels in the Outfield, Cobb didn’t have a large filmography. He did, however, star in a film as a fictional character who bore his name.

In the 1917 silent film Somewhere in Georgia, Cobb played a banker named Ty Cobb who moonlighted as a baseball player. The film, which was based on a short story by the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, does not survive today, as the original prints were lost some time ago. It serves, however, as a time capsule into a time where people were dying to see their favorite athletes on a screen before TV. 

Jim Brown changed the game

A pioneer of the athlete-turned-actor, Jim Brown was the bridge between the world when superstar athletes in movies were a novelty and when they became legitimate movie stars, according to TV Guide. Brown only played a few years in the NFL, but his film career lasted over many decades. Without him, Ray Allen, Michael Jordan, and other athletes who appeared in major films may not have gotten their big break. 

Brown starred in several classics, from the Dirty Dozen to Any Given Sunday. To some, he might be more famous for these film appearances. Everything changed when Brown retired at 29 to pursue acting, however. The world of the athletic actor was never the same.