New England Travels blog, to one of theatre’s biggest baseball fans, Ethel Barrymore, on Tragedy and Comedy in New England. Today, we begin with the king of baseball movies.
“Pride of the Yankees” (1942) is lauded for its inspiring tone about one of baseball’s greatest legends, Lou Gehrig. Ironically, there is actually very little baseball action in the movie; most of it is comprised of vignettes aimed at illustrating the self-effacing personality of the quiet man.
Since humility, according to this film, was as great a virtue as his athleticism, one wonders if that seemed as difficult a thing to capture to the makers of this movie as it would be today. Today it might be even more difficult, as quite often when a reporter interviews an athlete right after the event, the first words out of the athlete’s mouth are usually something like, “Well, I’m really proud of myself.”
This was especially apparent, to a nauseating degree, during the last Olympic Winter Games, when I lost count over how many athletes were proud of themselves. To be sure, competition is as much mental as it is physical, and modern athletes are trained to be goal-oriented and focused on objectives. Still, if expressions of humility do not make a better athlete, they do make a better human being. Perhaps we have taught the importance of self esteem sometimes at the risk of encouraging overbearing conceit.
But, here we have a movie whose sole purpose is to laud humility and to show it as a courageous act.
Movie trickery in this instance is how they managed to get Gary Cooper to bat like Gehrig. They sewed the number 4, Gehrig’s Yankee’s number, backwards on the back of Cooper’s baseball uniform. When he swung right-handed and “hit” the ball, Cooper ran down the third base line, rather than the first base line. Then the mad geniuses in the production department just reversed the image for the final print of the film so it looks like he’s batting left and running down to first base.
“Casablanca” (in this previous blog post) as the émigré who asked his wife “What watch?”
Walter Brennan plays a sports writer who discovers Gehrig and becomes his one-man publicity team, a man so impressed that he predicts great things for Gehrig. As time passes, Brennan becomes deeply devoted to Gehrig because of his integrity and his humility, even more than his athletic skill. The character Brennan plays is fictional, but could stand as a composite for many whose lives crossed Gehrig’s and felt the same protective devotion of a parent, a sibling, a fan and hero-worshipper all rolled into one.
It must have been difficult to cobble together a script about Gehrig’s life since he was simply a quiet man who played baseball well and never missed a game. Samuel Goldwyn, producer of the film, was reportedly not interested in doing a baseball movie because there seemed nothing exciting about it.
What sold Goldwyn was newsreel footage of the famous “luckiest man” speech Gehrig made at the end of his life when the New York Yankees paid a public tribute to him at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when everyone knew that he was dying.
The speech moved Goldwyn, and was enough for him to give the green light to a movie featuring two of Goldwyn’s brightest stars about a man who did nothing more than do his job well and was humble about it.
“Casanova Brown” (see prior post on that movie here).
We see a courtship interrupted by montages of baseball games accompanied by many refrains of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, and a lot of team hijinks on trains. There is an interlude at a nightclub where we get a performance by Veloz and Yolanda, a novelty dance team who are really very good and fascinatingly acrobatic, but otherwise have nothing to do with the plot, with Ray Noble and His Orchestra in the background
Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig, and Bob Meusel, other teammates, also play themselves, as does radio sportscaster Bill Stern.
Trophies accumulate, and Teresa Wright pastes a few more clippings in the scrapbook to show the passing parade of years. We see the first sign of Gehrig’s mysterious illness when they playfully wrestle on the floor, and he has muscle pain. Soon it is harder for him to grip things as he loses strength in his hands. The doctor holds up x-rays and intimates to Gary Cooper that it’s the end of the road for him, but we never hear a diagnosis or an explanation of the disease. This is probably only partly due to that vague manner that old movies addressed illnesses, and mainly because the disease was as mysterious to the medical profession as the public.
The disease, we know now, was Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which affects nerve cells in the brain and in the spinal cord that control the muscles. The nerve cells, or motor neurons, die, and the victim loses the ability to control muscle movement. The disease is progressively degenerative, and is fatal.
At some point after his death, the disease came to be commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
There are momentary scenes that speak volumes of the equal anxiety and fear of both Teresa Wright and Gary Cooper, but the illness is not played for melodrama or even addressed much in this film. It is simply what brings closure to the film even as it brings Gehrig’s life to a close.
When Gehrig cannot physically play his last game, he takes himself out, and we see him exchange a brief moment with the rookie who will be taking his place. The announcer lets us know that a change is being made in the lineup, and Gehrig will not play in the game for the first time in 14 years. Even wise guy Dan Duryea feels the weight of the moment.
When Cooper steps out for the ceremony on the infield, the historic newsreel moment is re-created here. Cooper delivers the most famous speech in sports (changed a bit for poetic license), and then walks off the field, down into the darkened tunnel. That’s the last we see of him; the tunnel is metaphoric.
Possibly the only more stunning speech ever made was by the announcer of the last game Gehrig ever played in May 1939: "Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Gehrig's consecutive streak of 2,130 games played has ended."
His record was not broken until 1995.
Lou Gehrig’s life and career, have a look at this website.
There have been great strides made in the treatment of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but there is still no cure. About half of its victims will live less than three years. For more on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, have a look at this website.
Below, we have Gary Cooper delivering the “Luckiest Man” speech from “Pride of the Yankees.” (Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of the page and mute the music.)
Here is actual footage of the event as shown in the Ken Burns baseball documentary:
And here is a recitation of the “Luckiest Man” speech in its entirety.