[1942] The Pride of the Yankees

The Pride of the Yankees paints Lou Gehrig as the wholesome king of Yankee baseball in an era when Yankee baseball was king in the world of sport and the world of culture. In many respects, he was, if the movie is at least somewhat true. Self-aware and humble to a fault, a man whose mother was his “best girl” even when he married a woman of equal tenacity and warmth, Gehrig prescribed wholesomeness to the masses in a sport dubbed and continually rebranded as America’s pastime. The Pride, capital P, was not of his own accomplishment but to his team, and to his country by proxy. Whether any of the story is absolutely true is irrelevant: there has been a Mr. October and a Mr. November on the New York Yankees in the 75 years since Gehrig died, but The Pride of the Yankees paints Lou Gehrig as Mr. Forever.

This film was so profoundly moving for at least three reasons. The closeness of its creation to Lou Gehrig’s death, the striking accuracy with which Gary Cooper portrayed a man he may or may not have ever met, and the microscopic detail paid to a single man, when the film could have been about the whole team, a completely different team, or a different player all together, and it still would not have been about baseball. But it always was.

The hagiographic nature of this film paints Gehrig as at least saintly and at mostly godlike. Sincere in that level of reverence, The Pride of the Yankees idolizes Number Four as this man who can do no wrong and in his death the man who will perpetually do right. The world, at least as far as American sport reached, still reeled from his passing too soon from a degenerative disease that bears his name. Biographies just do not happen that close to passing. There is not enough time to memorialize and remember what there is to know about a person before the edit is due to the publisher or studio. Details continue to unfold about Gehrig’s life and will continue forever as long as a record of his life, as he lived it, exists. But this extracts a question with no answer: when is too early to remember someone? Are biographies awkward and unnecessary while the person is still alive? Can an unauthorized biography hold any credence, ever? Sometimes the reader just wants to learn about a character that exists or existed at one time. Is this wrong, or more specifically, authentic?

Authenticity is hotly debated, and will forever be challenged whenever a fact is misapplied or it seems to an observer that a person is acting outside their natural, sometimes understood, realm of existence. If a person does something – anything – how can it be inauthentic to his or her story? This is not a tricky question for dramatic artists. Actors operate under the working definition that their portrayal is inauthentic, but a generous replica to capture some quality about his or her subject. What happens if a film takes a certain license with a real person? Fiction is simpler in this regard because the portrayal is unreal, but after a certain time period, even once-living creatures become objects of unreality. Every second there are fewer and fewer people alive that remember Lou Gehrig as an ordinary (in this case, human) person, and even fewer that knew him personally enough to represent him on screen with some sense of accuracy – authenticity be damned. Gary Cooper, a masterful chameleon, had first-hand knowledge to portray Gehrig and essentially immortalize him as this man, lucky as he called himself, for as long as the footage exists. Does it matter that world relived the man’s life so close after his death? If so: why have there not been similar films since?

This idea of a singular film about a person (a specific person) holding more weight than one to capture a hypercomprehensive snapshot of society is somewhat bizarre as a concept. The details about Lou Gehrig’s life both matter too much and not at all: if he were not a baseball player, but rather an engineer as was his original plan, would his struggle with ALS have been as remarkable? As a symbol of American laissez-faire, baseball represents the idyllic nature of what Americans could or should do with free time – free time seen for the first time by many Americans, and (possibly) envied still by the world writ large. The fact that a part of the population had to obtain the otherworldly skill to play it professionally is what makes the game watchable (I can’t do that, but I’m excited by those who can) and definable (this sport is only American). Lou Gehrig represented everything about what it meant to be an American (an immigrant) and what it meant to be great (infinitely likable and shockingly talented) in an era where Babe Ruth, widely regarded as the best pure player ever, needed to play a facsimile of himself in a supporting role. That is how important Lou Gehrig was to the sport, and to the national consciousness during an era of uncertainty – how could God or disease rob us of so many Americans? Lou Gehrig’s story has never been precisely about baseball, but neither has baseball.

Among other benefits to the film industry’s ability to judge itself, was the reduction in 1944 to five films nominated in the Best Picture Category. While the additional exposure and/or the need to fill a roster would have worked just a decade earlier, the prevailing and populist nature of the screen ecosystem now made criticism and enshrinement easier, and ironically, harder. It is more challenging to discern a particular theme from the years pre-1944 and post-2008, but an informed guess might do this year justice. The ten films nominated for Best Picture in 1942 ranged from quotidian winner Mrs. Miniver to quasi-comedy Kings Row, to musical distraction and fun Yankee Doodle Dandy, and it is hard to get a sense of national mood from this range. Mrs. Miniver continues to reflect a frightened existence from afar and sprinkle it with hope, which carried the United States through the dark and perilous Second World War. But the reader would be hard-pressed to find a film as enigmatic, engaging, and everyman as The Pride of the Yankees for the year 1942.

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