Sports

Lou Gehrig: The Pride of the Yankees

Americans cheer in their athletes what they demand of their citizens: humility, simplicity, and purity of spirit. It's a myth that's perfectly suited for the make-believe workings of Hollywood.


The Pride of the Yankees: Collector's Edition

Director: Sam Wood
Cast: Ernie S. Adams, Hardie Albright, Edgar Barrier, Anita Bolster, Walter Brennan
Distributor: MGM
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1942

This new century has been a difficult one for major league baseball. After a late '90s boom in popularity -- due largely to the emergence of spectacular home run totals -- the sport has been mired in a bust of fan disaffection, as revelations have come to light that steroids were the driving force responsible for so many of those initially thrilling at bats. With each successive wave of allegation, denial, apology, and backlash, cynicism amongst fans and commentators has risen; the veneer of "America's pastime" has become more tarnished than sepia-toned.

Alex Rodriguez represents just the latest version of this increasingly well-established tale, in which a star ballplayer is brought low by an admission of doping. Though his misdeeds were reportedly committed while he played for the Texas Rangers in 2003, Rodriguez is currently a New York Yankee -- something that makes the angst surrounding his scandal particularly acute. As a Yankee, Rodriguez enjoys a particular kind of visibility that he wouldn't, say, as a Brewer, or Pirate. Instead, he's part of a team that has a metonymic relationship with the country as a whole.

Seen by some as a symbol of ego-driven capitalism run amok, who dub the club the "Evil Empire", the Yankees are just as fervently championed by those who regard the team's influence as simply the legacy of the most storied franchise in pro sports. With reverent awe, they intone hallowed names -- Ruth, Mantle, DiMaggio, Gehrig -- and hold them up as avatars of the club's decades of achievement.

Fans of this last ballplayer in particular have been able to revisit past glories with the 1942 film Pride of the Yankees. Chronicling Lou Gehrig's career as a Yankee first baseman, the film telegraphs its intentions within the first few seconds, in the form of an epigraph by New York writer Damon Runyon. Runyon asserts that Gehrig's "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". The remainder of the film is devoted to elaborating Runyon's thesis through dramatic interpretation.

We're shown Gehrig's upbringing as a first generation New Yorker, spent playing sandlot baseball in knickerbockers. As his German immigrant parents extol the virtues of their new homeland (his mother reminds him that America is "a wonderful country where everybody has an equal chance"), Gehrig proceeds to justify their optimism by becoming a star hitter at Columbia and attracting the notice of Yankee scouts. As Gehrig (who is played from his college days until his final at bat by a 38-year-old Cary Grant) finds success in college and then as a Yankee, he retains a nearly child-like purity. With fraternity brothers and teammates, we see Gehrig fall victim to practical jokes and react with bewilderment at the very idea of his friends' deception. He dotes continually on his mother (his "best girl"), volunteers with kids, and refuses to sit out a game for injury or sickness, earning him the nickname, "The Iron Horse".

In short, Lou Gehrig is the embodiment in the conservative mind of the perfect baseball player. As sportswriter Sam Blake (Walter Brennan) tells us in the film, Gehrig's play reflects "no daffy experiments, no hornpiping in the spotlight". Instead, he shows up, says little, exhibits effort, and never complains. By all accounts a quiet, even shy man in real life, Gehrig's on-field austerity is the perfect stuff for a film engaged in reifying the popular qualities of the model pro athlete.

When Babe Ruth (played, surprisingly well, by himself) poses in front of media at the bedside of sick little Billy and promises him a home run, we see Gehrig come over after all the cameras have left and promise Billy two homers. Of course, he delivers, but the real payoff for the film's audience is the juxtaposition of Ruth's perfunctory posing with Gehrig's ostensibly sincere concern. We see, in Gehrig, how a real pro athlete should behave.

In a word, Gehrig gives us humility. He exists, both in Pride of the Yankees and in history more generally, as an icon of self-effacement. As he bid farewell to Yankee Stadium, stepping aside as his body began to falter under the ravages of ALS (thereafter Lou Gehrig's Disease), Gehrig stood, head bowed, cap in hand, and famously proclaimed himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth". Such a mixture of gratitude and optimism, in such a public figure, formed the lasting imprint of Gehrig's career.

That's not to say that his speech was disingenuous, nor to deny its legitimate poignancy. Still, the tragedy of Lou Gehrig's illness and untimely death is not the full extent of his legacy here, but rather a foil against which the film can emphasize his role model behavior.

In The Pride of the Yankees Collector's Edition DVD, the included extras only serve to underscore this impression. We see producer Samuel Goldwyn's son extol the virtues of Gehrig's life in an otherwise self-congratulatory "making of" special, while author Ray Robinson (Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig In His Time) gives us more of the same in a separate feature.

In a third interview, the choice of pitcher Curt Schilling, who named his son Gehrig, to extol Lou's virtues is a telling one. Having stumped for both Bush and McCain on the campaign trail, it's clear how a conservative like Schilling might find a ready-made hero in the self-effacing figure cast by Gehrig. Both in his personal and historical aspect, Gehrig hearkens back to a time before steroids and prima donna athletes, one in which wholesome family values dominated the media and American exceptionalism was the pervading ethos.

Of course, as is always the case with cinematic nostalgia, things were a bit more complicated than that. We don't learn from the film that Lou was really Ludwig Heinrich Gehrig, a fact that may not have gone over well with American audiences circa 1942. Nor does it dwell overmuch on the debilitating condition that resulted from Gehrig's disease. Though the film does devote an extra to ALS and the ongoing need for research, the film's doctor offers his diagnosis to Lou more succinctly: "It's 3 strikes".

In this scene, and throughout, Pride of the Yankees encourages us to understand baseball as a metaphor for life. Americans cheer in their athletes what they demand of their citizens: humility, simplicity, and purity of spirit. It's a myth that's perfectly suited for the make-believe workings of Hollywood.

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