Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) is a young Columbia University student studying to become the engineer his mother (Elsa Janssen) wants him to be. But the man also has a swing of the bat blessed by God himself, and when sportswriter Sam Blake (Walter Brennan) sees the immense potential that Gehrig has, he persuades a scout to see him play. Before long, Gehrig signs with the New York Yankees, and after working his way through the minors, he is brought up to join the Yankees, alongside his hero Babe Ruth (Himself).
Though he doesn’t exactly come out of the gates swinging, his strong work ethic and consistent play on the field wins over his teammates and fans, and soon becomes the star of the team.
“Buster Lou”, “Biscuit Pants”, “The Iron Horse” – there will never, I repeat, never, be another first baseman quite like the legendary Henry Louis Gehrig. Throughout his storied career, one that spans two iconic Yankee eras – Babe Ruth’s “Murderer’s Row” and Joe DiMaggio’s “Bronx Bombers” – Gehrig earned six World Series Championships, two American League MVPs, seven consecutive all-star appearances (he’d certainly have more within his 17 years of playing, but the “Midsummer Classic” didn’t begin until his 11th season), led the American League in home runs three times, RBIs five times and earned the triple crown title once in 1934.
And then, at the snap of a finger, his life was cut short by the terminally debilitating disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly known in America as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”. Though 17-years of playing ball still makes for a lengthy career, unlike many Hall of Fame baseball players who have played well into their 40s; Gehrig’s illness forced him to retire by 36. Not long after his retirement, he died at the age of 37, just a little over two weeks shy of his 38th birthday.
Overall, Gehrig amassed career totals of 2,721 hits, 493 home runs, 1,995 RBIs, 534 doubles, 163 triples and a .340 batting average. To this day, many of his records as a first baseman, both career and season, still stand. Just a few months after his retirement, he was elected by special election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente also earned the same honor following the plane crash that tragically took his life), and was also the first player in MLB history to have his number, #4, retired by his team.
While many were shocked to see such a model of athletic durability struggle near the end of his career to make even something as simple as a routine put-out at first, fans of the game, and the country as a whole, would be much more moved by the grace and humility Gehrig showed in spite of his “bad break”. No greater display of such humility would take place than his iconic retirement speech to a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium, where not a dry eye was found in sight. Gehrig had every right to be disheartened about the hand he’d been dealt, but instead, in true storybook ending fashion, before legions of fans, former teammates, coaches, rivals and city officials, he would deliver what would become known as “Baseball’s Gettysburg Address”. As one of the greatest speeches not just in baseball history, but in American history, Lou’s “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech was a celebration of life, one that spoke not of his own accomplishments, but was simply a thank you to everyone that touched his life.
“So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”
It goes without saying that Lou Gehrig’s records and accolades is what made him a great ballplayer. That speech is what made him a great man.
And there’s your history lesson, kids.
Released in 1942, just a year after Gehrig’s death, The Pride of the Yankees was initially described by producer Samuel Goldwyn as “box office poison”. “If people want baseball, they go to the ballpark!”, he said. Eleven Oscar nominations later, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Gary Cooper and Best Actress for Teresa Wright (who would go on to win Best Supporting Actress that night for Mrs. Miniver), and winning one for Best Film Editing, I’m sure his complaints died down.
The Pride of the Yankees opens up in true Hollywood-ized fashion with the “Awww shucks” kid version of Gehrig showing up to play ball with a bunch of kids and with his first at bat, practically smacks the ball out of the galaxy. It’s the always reliable foretelling device that, of course, is partnered with some utterly astonished authority figure going, “This kid’s gonna be somebody someday!”
No one said the best baseball flicks weren’t guilty of going for the whimsical jugular. Even the most recent Jackie Robinson biopic 42 felt the need to culminate in a sweepingly scored slow-motion home run that took Robinson eight hours to trot around the bases. Still, genre trappings and certain liberties taken aside (Gehrig’s ALS prognosis is dealt with very frankly here, whereas in real life, the doctors painted a more optimistic outlook for him, as was common practice for terminal illnesses), The Pride of the Yankees is a moving tribute to one of America’s most iconic figures both on and off the field.
Unlike the aforementioned 42 which put a lot of effort into researching Dodger game box scores to recreate games that Robinson played, there isn’t that much focus on the game here. We do get montages of pennant wins, World Series wins and much focus is placed on Gehrig’s once record-setting streak of 2,130 consecutive games played (which has since been broken by Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken, Jr. in 1995); however, most of the film deals less with Gehrig the ballplayer and more with Gehrig the husband, son and personality off the field. With 42, their focus was a nice touch and one of the strongest aspects of the film since Jackie Robinson being known as the first black MLB player tends to overshadow the legitimate skills he brought to the Brooklyn Dodgers. In this film’s case, it came only a year after Gehrig’s death and three since his retirement. What he did as a ballplayer was still very much fresh in everyone’s minds, so director Sam Wood and writers Jo Swerling and Herman J. Mankiewicz instead turned the viewer’s attention toward a different side of the Iron Horse, most notably his relationship with his wife Eleanor.
Any similarities between Gary Cooper and Gehrig are few, and more importantly, Cooper was right-handed unlike Gehrig who was a lefty. To his credit, Cooper did actually learn how to bat left-handed and though no specific scenes were pointed out, it’s rumored that Wood used camera trickery by reversing the film for a few scenes to simulate the appearance of Cooper throwing with his left hand. But what matters most is the performance, though authenticity is most definitely appreciated, and Cooper’s emotionally honest turn as Gehrig is understated excellence, embodying not the athlete that the Yankee first baseman was, but the one characteristic that defined him best – his humility.
Teresa Wright shines with such warmth as Gehrig’s wife Eleanor, his “tower of strength”, and shares a lovely dynamic with Cooper that drives most of the film’s story (Elsa Janssen also shares a nice rapport with Cooper as his strong-willed mother). Legendary character actor Walter Brennan is vintage Brennan as sports writer Sam Blake (loosely based on Gehrig’s business manager and friend Christy Walsh), and the same could be said for Babe Ruth being – well, Babe Ruth (former Yankees Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel and sportscaster Bill Stern also appear as themselves). Ruth obviously is no actor, but there’s no denying the character he was as the face of the entire MLB for years. Wood wisely capitalizes on that, not really overusing him and drawing on Ruth’s over-confidence and charm effectively.
“How many home runs you gonna hit this year, Babe?”
“Well, tell ya what… I hit ’em and you can count ’em.”
As for the famous speech (which is cut down from Gehrig’s original version, but the essence of it remains the same), you don’t need to be a baseball fan to be moved by the emotional finale ’cause it could easily move even Hitler to tears. Thankfully, Cooper and Wood realize the speech works on its own and needs no extra flourishes to pump up the impact. God only knows how deafening the waterworks-inducing score might’ve been in the wrong melodramatic hands. Instead, they honor the author’s work by keeping it simple and the result is profoundly poignant finale that is tragic yet a thousand times more uplifting.
Some may be disappointed that a film about one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game doesn’t feature that much baseball, but Gary Cooper’s heartfelt, star-turning performance should be more than enough to win them over. Though it doesn’t shy completely away from the game, The Pride of the Yankees focuses more on Lou Gehrig’s closest relationships and shows us what made him the luckiest man on the face of the Earth extended beyond the baseball diamond.