“People all say that I’ve had a bad break. But today … today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”
— Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) at the end of The Pride of the Yankees (1943)
After airing Foreign Correspondent earlier tonight, TCM followed up by showing the 1943 best picture nominee, The Pride of the Yankees. Knowing that Pride of the Yankees was going to be a baseball film and that I know next to nothing about baseball, I recruited my sister, the Dazzling Erin, to watch the movie with me. Erin loves baseball and I knew that she would be able to explain anything that went over my head.
Well, I absolutely loved watching this movie with my sister but it turns out that The Pride of the Yankees isn’t really much of a baseball movie. True, it’s about a real life baseball player. Several actual players appeared as themselves. About 85% of the film’s dialogue deals with baseball and probably about 70% of the film features characters playing some form of the game. But the film never goes into any great detail about baseball or how it’s played. There’s no talk of strategy or rules or deeper meaning or anything else. Going into the film, I knew that baseball was a game that involved throwing, swinging bats, and running. And it turns out that was all that I needed to know.
The Pride of the Yankees is less about baseball and more about celebrity. It’s a biopic of Lou Gehrig, who today is best known for his battle with ALS, a disease that is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lou Gehrig died on June 2, 1941 and The Pride of the Yankees was released just a year later. Watching the film, it’s obvious that Gehrig was a beloved figure, the type of celebrity who, if he were alive today, would probably be the center of stories like, “Lou Gehrig Did Something This Weekend And It Was Perfect.” Watching the film, it easy to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the nation when a beloved athlete like Lou Gehrig died at the age of 37.
As a result, The Pride of the Yankees is less a biopic and more a case for canonization. From the minute that the film’s Lou Gehrig appears on-screen, he is presented as being the type of saintly athlete who, by promising to hit two home runs in one game, inspires a crippled child to walk. Lou is modest, kind, unpretentious, and never gets angry. Over the course of the film, he takes care of his mother, displays a worthy work ethic, and marries Eleanor. He and Eleanor have a perfect marriage without a single argument or a hint of trouble, except for the fact that Lou sometimes gets so busy playing baseball with the local children that he’s late coming home. There’s not a hint of sadness in their life, until Lou suddenly gets sick.
And really, it should not work. If ever there’s ever been a film that should be painfully out-of-place in our more cynical times, it would be The Pride of the Yankees. However, the film still works because Lou is played by Gary Cooper and Eleanor is played by Teresa Wright. These two excellent performers bring their considerable talents to making overly sentimental scenes feel credible. Gary Cooper was 40 years old when he made The Pride of the Yankees and there’s a few scenes — especially the ones where Lou is supposed to be a student at Columbia University — where Cooper is clearly too old for the role. But, for the most part, Gary Cooper did a great job as Lou Gehrig. Cooper is especially memorable when Lou first starts to show signs of being ill. Watching Lou struggle to swing a bat, I was reminded of a horse struggling to stand on an injured leg. It was almost painfully poignant.
The Pride of the Yankees was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including best picture. However, it lost to another sentimental film that featured Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver.