The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Directed by Sam Wood

Kicking off this marathon is a film I’ve seen before, which means I’ll feel right at home, especially with the subject matter of Lou Gehrig, who just so happens to be my all-time favorite player. It may seem strange that a player whose prime was the 1920s and 1930s would be the favorite player of someone born in the 1980s, but I was always attracted to his history and stat line. Baseball and History have always been two of my favorite subjects, so to study the history of the game and discover the gem that is Lou Gehrig was quite a thrilling experience. I think what drew me most to Gehrig was his teammate, Babe Ruth, whose fame goes beyond Baseball to become an American icon. Often considered the greatest player to ever play the game, I wouldn’t go so far as to say Ruth overshadows Gehrig’s greatness, but he kind of does. Gehrig’s fame, of course, also goes beyond Baseball, but for a far more unfortunate reason, ALS. There is something endlessly admirable to me about a guy who would go out and do his job everyday (Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games), excel at an extremely high level (career .340/493/1995 line), and show great courage in the face of a life threatening disease.

With such a giant of the sport, and the film about his life coming out only a few years after his sudden passing, it should be of no surprise that the resulting film is very sentimental and paints Gehrig as a clean cut everyman hero. Not being his biographer, I cannot say how accurate the film is, but as a work of fiction, The Pride of the Yankees does a great job of crafting the character of Henry Louis Gehrig. Central to that craft is the performance of Gary Cooper, whose work previously I haven’t loved (or hated), but Cooper seems like the perfect fit to play Gehrig. Seemingly stoic and a little lacking of emotion, Cooper manages to portray Gehrig as a hard working class man, who just loves the game of baseball and is dedicated to both work and family. His restrained emotion only serves to make the emotional scenes even more so. Complimenting Cooper is all American girl next door Teresa Wright as his wife, Eleanor. Wright and Cooper have a great rapport, which is extremely convincing and loving. Of Babe Ruth, I would say it was probably best that his scenes were limited. He did fine in his limited screen time, but I can imagine things starting to go off the rails if he appeared more than he did. Of course, Walter Brennan as the friendly sports writer (if there is such a thing to players) is marvelous. The cast knocks it out of the park (pun somewhat intended).

As for the baseball scenes, for a 1942 film there are some cool effects pulled off by the filmmaking team. For instance, the framing of the ball field in the background while the radio announcer makes his call of the game. Generally, the baseball scenes are standard, with the only significant baseball action coming in the World Series game after a hospital visit. The scenes are fine, and Cooper’s swing looks passable. It doesn’t strike me as a Lou Gehrig swing, but that was a once in a lifetime swing. The best baseball scene was easily the sandlot scene from when Lou was a kid, just looking to play the game he loved with some of the other neighborhood kids. That scene alone completely covers the love of the game from a child’s perspective, and the fuel which made playing the game every day for his whole career convincing.

If you had a time machine, when and where would you go first? I have often contemplated this question, and knowing that I could go anywhere in history, my answer has always been to go back and see all of the old baseball greats play in person. I would love to go back in time and get to see the 1927 Yankees, Murderer’s Row, including Ruth and Gehrig. I would love to see players from the Negro Leagues play (stay tuned for Soul of the Game later in this marathon  ;)). DiMaggio, Mays, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, the list goes on and on and on. I would love to see the style of the game played, and how it has evolved over time. The Pride of the Yankees was a great start to the marathon, and not quite a time machine, but to spend time with the Iron Horse Lou Gehrig only adds to my appreciation of him as a ball player and as a man.

**** – Masterpiece

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