Baseball films may have been around since before the World Series, but with the exception of a trio of films starring Joe E. Brown, they were mostly B-pictures. A movie about baseball was considered box office poison, so you can understand the resistance of mega-producer Samuel Goldwyn when he was approached with the story of New York Yankee great Lou Gehrig.
Goldwyn was reported as saying: “If people want baseball, they should go to the ballpark.” Fortunately for us, Goldwyn’s story editor Niven Busch pleaded his case by playing his boss a clip of Gehrig’s farewell speech. By the time the clip was over, a tearful Goldwyn gave the go-ahead for the picture (and ordered the clip to be run one more time).
The result was The Pride of the Yankees, not only the most financially successful baseball film to date, but one of the biggest hits of 1942 and the first of only two baseball films (Field of Dreams) to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
The film opens with Gehrig as a young boy. He joins a sandlot game, only to send the ball flying through a shop window across the way (if you watch carefully when young Gehrig swings, you can see the ball come shooting out from behind the camera). He is scolded at home by his momma (Elsa Janssen) who wants him to forget this baseball nonsense and become an engineer like his Uncle Otto (whose picture looms ominously on the wall above).
Thanks to his mom’s job as a cook for a fraternity, Lou (Gary Cooper) is enrolled at Columbia University where he becomes a major sports star, particularly in baseball and is recruited by the New York Yankees thanks in large part to sportswriter Sam Blake (Walter Brennan). Feeling a certain devotion to his mother, Lou declines. However, when his mother gets sick and they need money for her hospital care, Lou signs up.
After a short stint in the minors, Lou is called up to the majors and in his first game trips over a row of bats. This earns him the razzing of Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright), the daughter of a Hot Dog magnate, who would eventually become his wife.
Lou singles and on the next play is beaned in the head when trying to advance to second. He refuses to leave the game which sparks his manager to ask: “what are we going to have to do, kill you to get you out of the lineup.” Sadly that is exactly what would have to happen.
Gehrig played for 2,130 consecutive games, a major league record that was recently broken by Cal Ripkin Jr. Suffering the effects of the neurological disease that would eventually be named after him (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Lou would finally have to pull himself out of a game.
At Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, a crowd of 62,000 gathered for a ceremony in Lou’s honor. Surrounded by his teammates of the past and present, Lou delivers his famous farewell speech, emotionally claiming that although he has had a bad break, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
I can’t begin to imagine what kind of effect that speech must have had on those in attendance that day, but as captured in the film, the moment proves so powerfully emotional, it can choke up even the most cynical viewer.
The emotion in the scene is in large part due to the performance of Gary Cooper. Coop’s interpretation of the speech has become even more famous than that of the actual Gehrig. Gehrig’s courage in the face of doom was an inspiration to soldiers during World War II, whom Cooper performed the speech for during his tours with the USO. His performance in the film earned Cooper his second straight Oscar nomination for best actor and although he did not win like he did the year before, you can certainly argue that he deserved it (despite the fact that he couldn’t, you know, play baseball).
The film’s star who did win an Oscar that year was Teresa Wright, unfortunately it wasn’t for her brilliant turn as Lou’s devoted wife. Although she was nominated for Pride of the Yankees, it was her supporting turn in best picture winner Mrs. Miniver that brought her home the gold.
The Pride of the Yankees also features a charismatic performance by Babe Ruth as, well, Babe Ruth. The performance is even more impressive if you consider the sultan of swat spent much of the film’s production in pain. He was even forced into the hospital after he dieted too much to lose the forty-seven pounds required to make him look like his old self.
Watching the film today, it may appear to be just a hodgepodge of baseball movie clichés. We have “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” playing over the opening credits; the young hero smashing a window with a baseball; the loving, dutiful wife who usually keeps score for us in a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings; the mentor or friend who becomes such a part of the heroes life you think they were part of the family; the hero hitting a homerun for a sick boy on his death bed; the injury, illness or other crisis faced by the hero; and his courageous fight against that setback. However, we must remember that the reason these are clichés is because everyone has been copying them from The Pride of the Yankees ever since.
After Yankees became such a smash hit, everyone in Hollywood wanted a piece of the baseball movie pie, making the 1940s and 50s the most prolific period for the baseball flick until the 1980s sparked a resurgence that is still going today. Every Major Leaguer became fair game for a biography and such stars as Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Dan Dailey and Anthony Perkins soon hit the field.
Over sixty years later, The Pride of the Yankees is still as enjoyable and as emotionally powerful as it was during its initial run. If anyone is looking for a brief overview of the baseball film, this is where you need to start. I give it an A.