The Pride of the Yankees

By Jason Fuqua

       Pride of the Yankees is an inspirational tale about a real American hero; it reflects the need for heroes during WWII. What could be more inspirational than the story of a man who became the idol of millions, then faced the greatest of all adversaries with both courage and dignity. The Pride of the Yankees recounts the life and career of Lou Gehrig, one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

       It was filmed in 1942, just one year after Lou Gehrig succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which is known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Sam Wood Veloz, director of over twenty-seven classic films, created The Pride of the Yankees with a style and grace evident throughout the film. Jo Swerling writes the excellent screenplay and Herman J. Mankiewicz, following up their triumph with Citizen Kane in 1941. Lou Gehrig was played by no other than Gary Cooper an actor of British ancestry who was already a two-time Academy Award-winner. Gehrig's wife Eleanor, was portrayed by the beautiful Teresa Wright who somewhat reminds modem audiences of Donna Reed's character in It's a Wonderful Life . Several famous ballplayers appear in supporting roles including Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, and Bob Meusel, making the film an historical artifact as well as entertainment. In particular Babe Ruth playing the role of himself, with his status as a legend secure, appeared in the film to honor the player and human being who was Lou Gehrig. Indeed Ruth's presence is crucial to appreciate the depth of Gehrig's character. The film is an inspirational and emotionally charged story about one man in both life and sport, a man who was and is loved even to this day.

       The corny but popular tune "take me out to the ballgame" plays as the film opens with an eleven or twelve-year-old Gehrig playing a pick-up game of baseball with neighborhood kids. Gehrig, born to German immigrants on June 19, 1903 in New York City, was the only one of four children to survive, sadly typical of the dangers that plagued childbirth at the turn of the twentieth century. His mother Christina Fack, played by Elsa Janssen, cooked and cleaned houses and became the breadwinner in the family since his father Heinrich Gehrig suffered continual poor health including epileptic fits. Lou's mother insisted that he go to college and become an engineer like a financially successful uncle in Germany and avoid the poverty of first generation immigrants.

       In 1921, pursuing a degree at Colombia in engineering on a football scholarship, Gehrig began playing baseball. A newspaper columnist Sam Blake played by an audience favorite, Walter Brennan, picked up on and publicized the young Gehrig. Gehrig then became a Yankee for good in 1925.

       On June 2, 1925 Yankee manager Miller Huggins replaced regular first baseman Wally Pipp with Gehrig and, Lou began his fourteen year career. Playing 2,130 games earned Gehrig the title "Iron Horse", a record eclipsed sixty years later by Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles when he played in his 2,131st consecutive game on September 6, 1995. A partial list of Gehrig's career statistics proves how tough he really was while earning 23 grand slams, 1,995 RBI's, and runs scored by a first baseman 1,888.

       Romance followed fame when rookie Lou met Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright) the daughter of a local Chicago tycoon. According to the film they met at a Chicago White Sox game where she called him "tangle foot" after he tripped over some bats.

       The film premiered only half a year after the United States' entry into World War II. With the serious concerns the nation faced, a film that focused strongly on the comparative triviality of baseball, as a pastime for healthy young men, did not seem to some to be inappropriate. It was also in 1942 obvious to Hollywood that women would make up a larger percentage of the film-going public; not surprisingly, a lot of time is used to romanticize the courtship of Gehrig and Twitchell. For example, the inclusion of a long nightclub sequence featuring Veloz and Yolanda, a popular dance team of the time, shows the care Director Sam Wood took in including scenes appealing to women. While it slows the momentum of the film, it provides, nevertheless, an emotional context, that keeps the film perennially popular.      

  Unfortunately, for a movie about one of the greatest baseball players in history, there is too little of baseball in it. Those seeking an in-depth portrait covering the baseball milestones of Gehrig's splendid career-his seven World Series appearances, most valuable player award in 1936, 1,995 RBIs over 17 years will not find it here. The audience does view Gary Cooper swinging a bat a number of times, which is an interesting story in itself. Cooper was right-handed while Gehrig was a "southpaw;" to make him look as though he was hitting right, the filmmakers had uniforms with the lettering done backwards, and Cooper hit right-handed and ran to third base; the film was then flipped over so it appeared accurate.

       Nevertheless, despite such legends, the film remains framed on Gehrig's humane character; for example, a heartbreaking anecdote comes when the Yankees visit a hospital for publicity. As Babe Ruth signs autographs and visits the kids, Gehrig in his shy fashion waits till the cameras leave to visit with a crippled boy, Billy (Gene Collins) who cannot walk. Gehrig promises him two home runs to Babe's one in the approaching World Series against St. Louis. Gehrig hits the two homeruns. At the end of the film during Lou Gehrig's Appreciation Day on July 4, 1939, Lou meets a teenage Billy who can now walk, acting as if his illness had never happened. Certainly a Hollywood touch, but Gehrig's character makes it movingly realistic.

       The film only develops greater energy when Gehrig finds out in 1939 that he has an incurable disease. At the Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota Gehrig met with Dr. Harold C. Habein. His condition proved serious enough that only Eleanor knew the full extent of his illness. Sadly, victims of ALS are completely aware of their surroundings and of their physical decline, so Gehrig knew his fate early on and pulled himself out of the game at Detroit in 1939 ending his 2,130 game streak.

       The recreation of Gehrig's final speech at Yankee Stadium on "Lou Gehrig's Day" is a heart wrenching moment. Cooper stands against a screen showing actual footage of Gehrig's giving the speech.

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break: I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been to ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.... When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it's a blessing.   When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that's the finest I know. So I close by saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

 

       In the film, the second line in which Gehrig states that he "considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth" is accurately put at the end of the speech, but provides an emotional punch that exhibits the best part of the film. Cooper then walks off through the tunnel in Yankee Stadium. He died on June 2, 1941. The Pride of the Yankees has entertained audiences for over half a century. It provides a pleasing blend of baseball and a love story that conveys affection for the game as well as the man along with respect for a fine player and the courage of those struggling with an incurable disease. According to sportswriter Stanley Frank "Lou was the most valuable player the Yankees ever had because he was the prime source of their greatest asset - an implicit confidence in themselves and every man on the club."     

   The film was nominated for nine Oscars, but only won for best editing (Daniel Mandell's first of three statuettes) nominated for Best Actor (Cooper), Actress (Wright), Picture, Cinematography, Interior Decoration, Screenplay, Story, Sound, and Score. In the end, Oscar turned his back on The Pride of the Yankees. The camera treats Ruth well, even if he is presented as a bit of a buffoon in the film. One imagines that Ruth must have hoped that a film of his life would be made with as much class as The Pride of The Yankees was about Lou Gehrig. How sad then that Ruth himself never received a screen biography worthy of the name, having to settle instead for the abominable, but popular The Babe Ruth Story (1948) in which he was portrayed as crude and obnoxious by William Bendix, who actually was a Yankee, but just a boy during Gehrig's career. In 1992 a somewhat better The Babe with John Goodman appeared.

A few good books on Gehrig's life and the Yankees in general are: Jonathan Eig's Luckiest Man: Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, which gives the famous speech accurately. Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig In His Time by Ray Robinson is also very readable as is Sweet Lou by Lou Piniella and Maury Allen, Five 0' Clock Lightning: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and the Glory Years of the NY Yankees by Tommy Henrich with Bill Gilbert. A 1978 made-for-TV film based on Eleanor's memoir My Luke and I (one of Gehrig's nicknames), titled A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story is a pleasing effort along with the DVD 100 Years of the New York Yankees, covering the Yankees from 1903-2003.