of the Yankees
presents pure 1940s Americana and family values
on the screen. As a mainstream 1942 film, what else
would you expect? The biggest disappointment I had
re-visiting this classic baseball movie on DVD was
finding that Ted Turner and like thinking people
had colorized the glorious black and white film
to appeal to younger audiences. Still it's got its
pleasures for baseball fans, especially since Babe
Ruth appears as himself in a dramatic role.
The Bambino actually has
significant charisma and takes over the screen whenever
he's on, just like he did in real life. If nothing
else it's worth watching to see Babe’s first entrance,
arriving late in the locker room as the center of
attention with a legendary hot dog in his mouth.
Ruth was notorious for his huge appetite (often
consisting of numerous hot dogs) and for his party
But the film is actually
about another Yankee legend—one who will forever
be linked with the Babe, and that is Lou Gehrig.
Baseball fans realize that the low keyed Iron Man
will become one of baseball's immortals, who will
go on to set an endurance record of playing in 2,130
consecutive games that would last for over 50 years
until Carl Ripken, Jr. accomplished the unbelievable
feat of topping it. Gehrig also established himself
as one great hitter for average and power, and was
an important part of the "Murderer's Row" on some
of the great Yankee teams of the 1920s and 1930s.
Or many will know Gehrig from the terminal illness
that is forever linked to his name--Amyotrophic Lateral
Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease).
The biopic will cover all
these basics and add a lot of homemade American
pie to the mix to make everyone feel good about
the purity of baseball. After all, these are the
days when ballplayers competed for the love of the
game and salaries hadn't escalated to astronomic
proportions. According to the film, Gehrig never
even got a contract for as much as $50,000 and lives
a comfortable middle class lifestyle.
A true American success
story, the film begins with a young Gehrig getting
a chance to substitute in a neighborhood sandlot
game (foreshadowing his later famous substitution
for Wally Pipp) and promptly wallops the baseball
through a store window. His German-American parents
are a hard-working cook and janitor for nearby Columbia
University and pay the $16 it costs to fix the window.
Mrs. Gehrig (Elsa Janssen) believes that Lou can
only succeed by following the engineering footsteps
of his uncle Otto, so she discourages Lou from his
But talent and love for
baseball prevail. Another scene has the University
of Columbia star break another window and get the
attention of sportswriter Sam Blake (Walter Brennan),
who inexplicably follows Lou around throughout his
career, including his elopement and hospital exam
at the end of his baseball career.
The film gains a real coup
by casting Gary Cooper as the Yankee legend to help
establish the Gehrig as American hero motif. Cooper’s
everyman look and modesty serves especially well
when he first is called up to the Yankees and wanders
into the clubhouse reverently gazing at the lockers
of Yankee legends Babe Ruth, Bob Muesel, Mark Koenig,
and Tony Lazerri. The same goes when the shy Gehrig
freezes and neglects to toss the ball back to Ruth
for his pre-game routine.
Although Cooper credibly
captures the essence of Gehrig, filmmakers did face
casting challenges because Cooper had very little
athletic ability and was right-handed. The solution:
show very few actual baseball playing scenes, use
long shots of Gehrig to allow a stunt double, reverse
the film to make him appear left-handed, and to
use lots of film dissolves of baseball team pennants
to signify game days and passage of time. Don't
expect a lot of game action in Pride of the
Yankees--it's a sanitized American hero story.
Screenwriters wouldn't dare try such a storyline
with Babe Ruth since he was a well-known rowdy,
but Lou Gehrig still remains a credible low key
figure that even Yankee haters cannot dislike (I
know this from personal experience).
The biggest challenge that
the screenwriters had in turning the Lou Gehrig
story into a marketable piece lies with Lou’s blandness.
A remarkable player, Gehrig was such a workhorse
who just does his job on the field and goes home
every day to either his mother or later to his wife
doesn’t create the kind of compelling conflict that
an intriguing sports story requires. So they manufacture
an opening conflict with his mother about going
to Columbia and becoming an engineer, and then put
in a really lame conflict with some fraternity boys
who all look at least 10 years too old to be in
college. The one marketing hook they seized upon
was the recent publicity about Lou Gehrig’s disease
and his death the previous year.
So what to do about creating
conflict within the Yankees? How about an implied
one with Ruth? One of the devices that the film
uses for "conflict" is to contrast the differences
between the two famous Yankee sluggers. While Ruth
adores the spotlight, Gehrig is far more reticent,
confiding only with immediate family on occasion
and with his private press supporter Blake.
One of the biggest heart-tugs
of the film takes place in a St. Louis hospital
before the World Series with the Cardinals. Surrounded
by flashing lights and journalists, Ruth autographs
a baseball and promises a crippled child named Billy
that he'll hit a home run to center field that day
for him. After the entourage has left the room,
Gehrig approaches the boy and reluctantly promised
to hit two homeruns for the kid as long as he promises
that he'll walk one day.
Of course, we get the Hollywood
version of this with Gehrig slamming the last pitch
he'll see that day out of the park (even though
the Cardinals are attempting to intentionally walk
him). A nice story, but it never happened.
You can look it up (paraphrasing
Casey Stengle) and find the following facts about
that 1926 World Series:
- The first two games of
the series take place in New York while games
three, four, and five are hosted by St. Louis.
- Gehrig was not a rookie
that year as indicated by the film. He actually
began getting some playing time in 1923 and took
over from Wally Pipp full time in 1925.
- An item ignored in the
film is the fact that St. Louis won that World
Series--the series that established the alcoholic
Grover Cleveland Alexander as the hero, coming
back after a complete 6th game victory (and a
probable nightlong drinking binge) to pitch the
final three innings of game 7 to nail down the
- The home run contest that
the film portrays is impossible. The Yankees hit
four homeruns in the series, and none were by
Gehrig. Babe Ruth hit all four, with a record
three homeruns in game 4 in St. Louis.
Of course non-baseball geeks
are saying to give this film a break, but just realize
that whenever Hollywood does a baseball movie the
fanatical baseball fans will question the accuracy,
and can find the statistics and anecdotes to either
prove or disprove the story. In this case, an unbelievable
story loses its smidgen of credibility by not putting
the legend into the realm of possibility. Instead
of choosing the 1926 World Series in St. Louis,
the filmmakers could have chosen the June 3, 1932
game against the Philadelphia Athletics when Ruth
hit one homer while Gehrig knocked out a record
four homers. That would make it a whole lot more
difficult to dispute the "Billy" story.
Another problem is the inclusion
of a long dating sequence with Gehrig and his fiancée.
I can almost accept the idea of the original love
song "Always" being included if it had been edited
much more tightly to avoid non-essential viewing
of the singer so. But including a whole dancing
sequence that contains absolutely nothing to advance
the plot is ludicrous, or perhaps a sign of the
times. Was it required in all 1940s films to include
a superfluous dancing scene to acknowledge the old
As hokey and old fashioned
as The Pride of the Yankees is, I
still get misty eyed for the incredible ending.
I even know it's coming. Cooper does a terrific
job personifying the beginning stages of ALS and
you can feel his pain—physical and emotional when
he keels over inexplicably in the Yankee locker
room. And of course the final scene duplicating
Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium should have the
waterworks going on anyone who's ever had a sense
of humanity about them.
"Fans, for the
past two weeks you have been reading about the bad
break I got. Yet, today, I consider myself the luckiest
man on the face of the earth."