The Pride of the Yankees: Collector’s Edition

“It was evident to everyone on the set (of The Pride of the Yankees) that (Gary Cooper) had never swung a baseball bat. He trained with professional players to learn a few fundamentals, but the right-handed actor still couldn’t swing convincingly from the left side of the plate.

“Finally, a film editor bailed out (director Sam Wood) with a clever suggestion: Let the actor bat right-handed and run to third base. They would have him wear a reversed Number 4 on his back. Then they would flip the film so it would look as though the actor were swinging from the left side and running to first.

“Fortunately for Cooper, there were not a lot of baseball scenes in Paul Gallico’s script.”

— from Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig

For years, 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees was considered one of the best Hollywood movies about baseball. The life story of New York Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig — a Hall of Famer, longtime teammate of Babe Ruth and courageous battler against ALS, the disease that took his life at age 37 — garnered 11 Academy Award nominations. But in 1988, two movies were released — Bull Durham and Eight Men Out — that brought far greater realism, honesty, and humor to their respective baseball stories, and forever changed the standards by which we judge baseball films.

Just in time for the new baseball season, all three of these movies are being released in new Collector’s Edition DVDs from MGM Home Entertainment. The films have been out on DVD before (they were even packaged together in 2004 as part of a “Grand Slam DVD Giftset”), but these editions include their most extensive bonus features to date.

Bull Durham: Written and directed by a former minor league ballplayer, Ron Shelton, this breakthrough movie brought a long-needed audacity and adultness to the baseball-movie genre. As Shelton says in an older documentary on the DVD, Between the Lines: The Making of ‘Bull Durham’, he wanted the movie to go where no other baseball film had: “on the buses, into the showers, out to the mound.”

In addition to its insider’s look at the minor league Durham Bulls, the film presented a romantic triangle involving a veteran catcher (Kevin Costner) signed to the team to speed the development of a talented but immature young pitcher (Tim Robbins) and the baseball groupie (Susan Sarandon) who wants to teach them a thing or two about both baseball and sex. (Yes, this is the movie where Robbins and Sarandon met and fell in love.)

What was crucial for Bull Durham‘s success was the realism of the baseball-playing in the film. The supporting actors were all skilled players, and the stars were either adequate (in the case of Robbins, who had the more difficult baseball part in replicating a pitcher’s motion) or just about perfect (in the case of Costner, who was utterly convincing as a catcher and hitter).

A 20-year retrospective documentary, The Greatest Show on Dirt, features Shelton and sportscaster Charlie Steiner discussing how the minor leagues had been ignored by previous baseball movies and how the box-office success of Bull Durham opened the door for more, and more varied, takes on the national pastime.

The DVD also includes an informative audio commentary by Shelton and an entertaining one by Costner and Robbins (both from previous editions).

Eight Men Out: In its 20-year DVD retrospective, writer-director John Sayles points out that he wrote his screenplay for this true story about the 1919 Black Sox scandal (when players on the American League champion Chicago White Sox took bribes from gamblers and “threw” the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds) a dozen years before he was able to make it. It took so long that Martin Sheen, who had been on Sayles’ initial wish list to be in his movie, was replaced by his son, Charlie Sheen.

The younger Sheen, D.B. Sweeney (who plays the team’s hitting star, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson) and David Strathairn (as ace pitcher Eddie Cicotte) all had excellent baseball skills to begin with. And under the tutelage of former major leaguer Ken Berry, the rest of the cast (including John Cusack, Gordon Clapp and Bill Irwin) received first-rate training in the fundamentals of hitting and fielding their positions.

Eight Men Out is certainly the best movie ever made about early 20th century baseball, the so-called “Dead Ball Era” when teams scratched and battled for each run, and about the sportswriters and gamblers who were adjuncts to the sport.

In addition to the retrospective, the DVD includes a commentary by Sayles, another documentary on the history of the scandal and more.

The Pride of the Yankees: Viewed today, the movie appears hopelessly dated — overly cute in depicting young Gehrig’s home life and his German immigrant parents, overly sentimental in showing Gehrig’s relationship to sick children, maudlin in its presentation of Gehrig’s debilitating illness.

It takes wide departures from the truth — from this sugarcoated film, one would not know that Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor (played by Teresa Wright), did not get along with the ballplayer’s beloved mother, or that Gehrig and his more famous teammate, Babe Ruth (who stars as himself in the movie), had a prickly relationship.

And worst, for a baseball movie, Gary Cooper just isn’t athletic enough to portray one of the sport’s greatest athletes. Even with the ingenious method used to cover up for Cooper’s inability to bat left-handed like Gehrig (resulting in the film’s one Oscar, for its editing), the actor never looks like a ballplayer. He’s also too old to successfully portray Gehrig as a Columbia University student or Yankee rookie.

He does, however, do a fine job delivering Gehrig’s famous “I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech at Yankee Stadium after Gehrig was forced by illness to retire.

Bonus features include documentaries on how the movie was made, on the real Lou Gehrig, on the search for a cure for ALS (known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and on Irving Berlin’s song “Always,” which is played in the film.

RATING 6 / 10