On July 4, 1939, it seemed like all of New York City plus most of baseball paused between games of a doubleheader to say good-bye to the career of Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Horse” who had played 2,130 consecutive games before the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ended his playing days. His farewell speech, beginning with the sentence “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” remains one of the most moving moments in sports history.
Just over a year after his death in June, 1941, Hollywood had a movie version of Gehrig’s life in the theaters. While it was well received at the time and garnered a whole rack of Academy Award nominations, time has not been kind to this shallow look at the baseball legend’s private life.
While the film focuses mainly on a highly sanitized portrayal of Gehrig’s home life, it does take some time out to feature some of his on the field accomplishments. To help, the filmmakers cast several of Gehrig’s teammates as themselves, including Babe Ruth. While the Bambino acquits himself adequately (and actually got back into shape to play the role), he’s not given much to do and the movie offers little insight into the relationship between two of baseball’s greatest players.
If there is anything to recommend this film, it is the earnest and sincere performances of Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright as Lou and Eleanor. Gehrig is shown as a small town rube who practically walked on water and Eleanor is never allowed to allowed to progress to far beyond a school girl with a crush, but the actors manage to make their characters appealing in spite of the deficiencies in the script.
Sadly, this movie manages to strike out for the one scene that should have been, if you’ll pardon the expression, a home run, that being Gehrig’s farewell speech. While Cooper’s performance is moving, the lead up is ruined because the filmmakers felt the need to include a radio announcer narrating the whole ceremony. You would think that by that time, they would have understood that film was a visual medium and such devices were unnecessary.
In the end, Pride of the Yankees is a safe and traditional film that is ultimately crippled by the dated conventions of the era.