Written by Paul Gallico, Jo Swerling, and Herman J. Mankiewicz
Directed by Sam Wood
Throughout the years of baseball, many of the heroes of the era have had their images torn down and ripped apart as the reality of their character became known more than the records they held or the statistics they posted.
Not so for Lou Gehrig, the Yankee slugger who was cut down in his prime by ALS, what has become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. For anyone of an age who doesn’t know who he was or why this terrible disease affecting him was such a tragedy, I recommend picking up Pride of the Yankees.
Gehrig grew up in New York, the son of a janitor who was forced to quit working due to epilepsy and a cook at Columbia University. Despite his natural ability to hit a baseball, he followed the path his domineering mother chose for him, getting into Columbia to study Engineering. She couldn’t keep him from the sport entirely, and his exploits on Columbia’s baseball team soon garnered the attention of baseball scouts.
His mother’s illness is what finally forces him to sign with the Yankees, but without telling her for fear of her wrath at having left the University and the Engineering degree she so wanted him to have.
What do we have to do — kill you to get you out of the lineup? – Miller Huggins, Lou’s first manager
The baseball scenes are wonderful. Seeing the old ballparks of Yankee Stadium the way it was in the 1940s is a treat. Wrigley Field in Los Angeles is used as a location for many of the “away” games and is a suitable substitute for those locales. Pride of the Yankees actually spends little time on Gehrig’s baseball feats. His stats aren’t discussed and are quite remarkable, especially in contrast to what is considered a “good” hitter today. Most of what is depicted is Lou’s life and the emphasis is on the romance and relationship between Lou and his wife, Eleanor.
Although much of what’s shown in Pride of the Yankees seems to differ greatly from the true story of Gehrig’s life, it’s still a great film nonetheless. Most of the differences involve his relationship and the courting of his wife, Eleanor. The two did not encounter each other for the first time at a ballgame where she dubbed him “Tenderfoot” but rather at a party in Chicago. The marriage between Lou’s parents wasn’t as amicable as it’s portrayed in the film (and that’s really no wonder, given the personalities involved).
Pride of the Yankees is also the study of the family dynamic. Lou’s mother is so domineering that even his father is afraid to make a decision without her or face her when they are deceiving her about his leaving Columbia to go play for the Yankees farm team in Hartford. Lou calls Mama “his best girl” and although there’s nothing odd going on, it’s uncomfortable to me to hear a grown man refer to his mother in such a way.
It’s interesting to watch Mama Gehrig’s reaction to Lou bringing Eleanor home for the first time. It’s even more interesting to watch Lou have to stand up to his mother and come down on Ellie’s side once Mama Gehrig tries to run their household. This is especially compelling in light of the fact that Lou turned over all the finances of the household to Ellie once they were married. It would seem that the “Iron Horse” liked his women quite strong in personality.
Released in 1942, it had the sweeping patriotic overtones to it that flourished in wartime:
This is the story of a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life. It is the story of a gentle young man who, in the full flower of his great fame, was a lesson in simplicity and modesty to the youth of America. He faced death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans on far-flung fields of battle. He left behind him a memory of courage and devotion that will ever be an inspiration to all men. This is the story of Lou Gehrig.
The acting is tremendous. Gary Cooper becomes Lou Gehrig, both in looks and personality. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and rightly so. He is the Iron Horse, shy and gawky and unsure of his own talent. He seems to never understand what all the fuss is about and Cooper has that essence to the performance. No matter how many trophies are on display in their home, he seems to never understand just how big his achievements are.
Teresa Wright as Lou’s wife, Eleanor also gives a terrific performance. Although the real Eleanor seemed a bit stronger than the way Eleanor is written here, Wright gives it her all and gives the character strength to deal with what life is about to throw at them and to be there for her husband. I suspect the role was written a bit diluted by the expectations for women at the time, but Wright makes the most of it and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in the process.
Elsa Janssen as Mama Gehrig is priceless and often steals the scenes she is in. She truly loves her son but is at the same time a typical German, stoic woman who is reluctant to show any emotion. She also runs the house and the lives of those in her family and expects them to do as she says, no questions asked. Janssen captures all of this perfectly and perhaps the only thing that could have helped out the role more was a more faithful portrayal of her marriage, rather than the comedic acceptance of her domineering role Ludwig Stossel as Pop Gehrig displays.
Many of the ballplayers portray themselves in the film, although they might have been getting a bit too old to do this at the time. Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Mark Koenig, and Bill Stern all portray themselves as Yankee players. Their roles are minimal for the most part, even the Babe’s and he does a great job with what he’s given.
Again, however, the film shies away from history including the fallout that occurred between the Babe and Lou. There are various rumors about what it was about. Some state it had to do with Mama Gehrig’s criticism of how Ruth and his wife were raising their children (Ruth’s family were frequent guests at Mama Gehrig’s dinner table and he loved her cooking).
All of the facts that are incorrect are tempered by the fact that by everyone’s accounts, the portrayal of Gehrig’s character is accurate. He is what is shown here, a man with a lot of talent and yet was humble and gracious in light of it. It is he who removes himself from the lineup, although manager Joe McCarthy had gone against the Yankee players and management much more than is shown in Pride of the Yankees to keep him in even when it became apparent that something was definitely wrong with the man.
There’s also not much shown of the work he did in the waning days of his life with the NYC Parole Board. He wanted no publicity for his work and didn’t receive any, preferring to stay low-key, but he spent many days at the various houses of detention in and around New York City talking with prisoners and listening to them talk about the “bad breaks” they had gotten.
This is definitely worth seeing, even for the non-baseball fan. You don’t have to have an understanding of the workings of the game to appreciate Pride of the Yankees and come away with a deep respect for baseball’s “Iron Horse”.