The story of Lou Gerhig has been an inspiration for generations now, athletes or not. As a boy, he aspired to become an engineer, just like his German immigrant mother wanted. He grew older, went to Columbia and worked toward that goal, but baseball was always an option. He turned down the Yankees on a number off occasions knowing it would break his mother’s heart to abandon engineering, but when she turned ill and needed money to get care, Lou signed up with the Yankees, opening up more opportunities than he could as an engineer.
Anyone familiar with classic baseball can tell you the rest of the story, major league, never missed any of his 2130 games in a row and struck in his prime with a mysterious debilitating disease. It was in mid 1938 that Gerhig noticed something was physically wrong, and from there his performance began to diminish. It’s heartbreaking to see such a good person struggle. A modern day tragedy, but that shouldn’t be what is taken away from this film. Gerhig never lets illness get him down and that’s what makes a man great, not his batting average.
Gary Cooper plays Lou Gerhig in all the wonderful ways fans love to remember him by. He’s modest, soft spoken, kind and does everything his mom says. In the scene where Gerhig’s teammate, Babe Ruth, is signing ball for sick boy in the hospital, everyone snaps pictures of little Billy and Babe like it will be on page one. When the press has left, little Billy asks Lou to sign ball too. The request is an honor, and he proceeds to share some inspirational words with the boy, saying that if he tries hard enough he’ll be able to walk again. It’s a sweet and a bittersweet moment and foreshadow to his own future.
The film’s only Oscar win was for best editing. It becomes instrumental to portray a fast paced baseball career. At some points, superimposed images are edited into a montage to tell the story of traveling around to diferent cities all season. Shots are edited together to show different people all over listening and reacting to the game. The players on field, men in press box, announcers, Billy in hospital, Lou’s family at home and random people on the street are suddenly all together rooting on their Yankees. The best thing is it brings a great feeling of anticipation and when victory strikes it is seen all over with so many happy faces united by one player.
Now, I’m not sure what exactly the formula is that makes a great sports film. There’s this mentality that needs to be present for a sports film to be great and remembered. It’s all about the honest virtues, your main character’s heart has to be even bigger than his swing. But there’s only so far you can take that before it gets too mushy, cause sports stars need to appeal to little boys and make them great men. Pride of the Yankees hits this hidden formula square center field, Gerhig is a perfect role model for all of us, on or off the field. His integrity and strong spirit in the face of adversity is why he’s still remembered to this day and why I recommend this film. Before you show your little slugger sports films like The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year or Angels in the Outfield (so many baseball films from my childhood) I suggest finding Pride of the Yankees. They’ll take away more important things from Gerhig than they will from Squints and Yeah-Yeah.
“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”