Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Me and my brother Clay have movie nights once a month, but we squeezed in an extra movie for Memorial Day: Pride of the Yankees, the 1942 biopic of Lou Gehrig. Clay said it’s a classic, and I vaguely remembered seeing this movie on TV when I was a kid.

Well, it’s a classic, if that means it’s an old movie, but there’s not much going on here. It’s not bad, but it’s bland, and nobody in it has much of a personality. Gary Cooper, in the lead, has none at all. He’s playing Gary Cooper again, same as he did in every movie. He changed his clothes for different roles, but on-screen he was always stoic, good-natured, aw shucks. In Pride of the Yankees, he’s no different from his character in High Noon or Sergeant York, only this time he’s in pinstripes.

If you’re wary of spoilers, stop here. No, I mean it. Did you stop? Well, stop now!

There are maybe four things you need to know about Lou Gehrig: ① He was a terrific ballplayer. ② He played in 2,130 consecutive games, and never went down with an injury. ③ He died young — age 37 — of the disease that’s now named after him, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. And ④ when his playing career was cut short, the Yankees gave him a going-away bash at the ball park, where Gehrig delivered a short, eloquent speech that’s been described as baseball’s Gettysburg Address.

In addition to his shortcomings as an actor, Cooper was far too old for the part. He was 40 when the movie was filmed — older than Lou Gehrig was when he died — and he looks every year of it, plus a few. Pretending he’s a rookie starting out in minor league baseball requires some serious suspension of disbelief.

Several of Gehrig’s Yankee teammates play themselves, including Babe Ruth, and it’s cool to see The Babe walking and talking on the screen. He’s a better actor than Cooper, but he’s playing a thoroughly sanitized version of Babe Ruth. All the ball-players, real and actors, are revealed to be wholesome root-beer-drinking church-goers who’d never whisper a word stronger than darn.

You’ve perhaps heard the legend of the ballplayer who visits a sick kid in the hospital, and promises to hit a home run to lift his spirits, and then hits that promised homer? I’m agnostic about it, but leaning toward saying it’s bullshit. I never played big-league ball, but my impression is that it’s difficult to hit a home run — it takes skill and muscles and luck. The perfect swing has to connect perfectly with the perfect pitch. Nobody simply decides to hit a home run, and then hits a home run.

The movie has no doubts whatsoever, and ratchets this story to the ceiling. We see Ruth promise to hit a homer for a sick boy, and then Gehrig promises not just one home run, but two. And then he delivers, hitting two home runs that night — in a World Series game. In a later scene we see the same kid from the hospital, recovered and walking again. Is this movie about Lou Gehrig, or about Jesus Christ? The man sure worked a miracle there.

Maybe he should've saved a miracle for himself. Gehrig soon slips into a slump, develops aches and pains, and gets the diagnosis from his doctor. How does he take the bad news? If you guessed stoic, good-natured, and aw shucks, you guessed right.

“Give it to me straight, doc. Am I through with baseball?” The doctor says it’s worse than that. It’s three strikes, you’re out. In the movie, when Gehrig is told that he’s going to die, he pauses for just one second, then breaks into a grin, and says, “Doc, I’ve learned one thing. All the arguing in the world can’t change the decision of the umpire.”

Well, now we know Gehrig is going to die (I warned you about spoilers!) but he’s tough enough to take it, and on the bright side, the movie is almost over. After two hours of starched baseball clichés, the big speech is coming up, and I’m looking forward to it.

Even if you don’t give a rip about baseball, you’re probably heard clips of the speech:  “For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…”

Gehrig said those words and a few hundred more at Yankee Stadium, amplified through the public address system. His voice echoed off the walls, and the echo became part of the legend: “I consider myself (-sider myself) the luckiest man (luckiest man) on the face of the earth (face of the earth). You can read the whole speech at this link, if you’d like.

It’s not easy to write something that conveys what you’re trying to say. I try and often fail, so I respect the speech. Gehrig is said to have written the outline the night before, and ad-libbed the rest on the spot. Calling it baseball’s Gettysburg Address is no exaggeration.

So we’re in the stadium, the grandstands are packed, and here comes the speech — and of course, the movie screws it up. I can’t imagine why, but they took Gehrig’s remarkable speech, rewrote almost every line, shortened what was already just a few paragraphs, mangled much of what they kept, and made Gehrig’s famous opening line the last line. I sat through more than two hours of hollow schmaltz waiting for the big speech, and they ruined the big speech.

I had a good time chatting with my brother, but unless you have someone to talk to, to joke about a rather overwrought celebration and scrubdown of baseball myths and clichés, I wouldn’t particularly recommend Pride of the Yankees


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