"Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Seven months after Lou Gehrig died, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. And so it came to be that two-and-a-half years after a retiring Gehrig delivered one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th Century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered another. These events, and these men and their words, would seem to have nothing to do with each other, and yet they were united by Damon Runyon, who in a prologue for Pride of the Yankees wrote: "[Gehrig] found death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans in far-flung fields of battle." Pride of the Yankees was released in March 1943, less than two years after Gehrig's death and with two-and-a-half years to go until Japan surrendered to end World War II, and this context is critical to recognizing the film's intent. Light on baseball and heavy with virtue, Pride of the Yankees isn't meant to chronicle Lou Gehrig's life for posterity. It's designed to help a specific generation cope with the loss of a public hero, and to pay tribute to mettle in the face of heartbreaking, premature loss — something its initial audiences understood all too well.
Despite Runyon's ominous forward, Pride of the Yankees is a spirit-bolstering comedy long before it's a gut-wrenching tragedy. Gary Cooper plays Lou Gehrig as Christopher Reeve would play Clark Kent decades later — suppressing an unmistakable physical prowess behind a sheepish social awkwardness. Much like Superman, Gehrig launches baseballs through glass windows thought to be safely out of reach. He doesn't swear. He doesn't assume victory. And he doesn't turn down home run requests from kids at the hospital. Gehrig's only apparent flaw is his willingness to avoid conflict with his domineering mother by any means necessary, even if it means little white lies. (When Gehrig joins a minor league team in Hartford, he allows his mother to mistakenly believe that he's gone to Harvard.) But such vices only accentuate a man's purity. Written by Jo Swerling and Herman J. Mankiewicz, from a story by Paul Gallico, much of the film observes Gehrig's romance with Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright), which begins with playful teasing and innocent chastity and leaps straight to outright devotion and commitment. (Years into their marriage, Lou and Eleanor still can't stand to be out of one another's sight.) It's a relationship as consistent as Gehrig himself, who famously played in a then-record 2,130 consecutive games.
But, one way or another, all love stories must come to an end, and we watch Pride of the Yankees fully aware that each triumph of athleticism and virtuousness is setting us up for a greater fall. Gehrig's physical deterioration is swift and cruel. In one scene, he topples out of his chair in the locker room while attempting to tie his shoes, and then he looks around the room less in embarrassment than in horror as he tries to process what just happened. Later on, the camera joins Eleanor in peering through the crack of an open bedroom door as Gehrig struggles to tie his bowtie. In between, in what makes for the film's most striking on-field image, Gehrig sees the game from just off the field, after subbing himself out to mark the end of 14-year streak of indomitability: First, in a lovely tracking shot, Gehrig walks through the dugout between the solemn sagging heads of his teammates in the foreground and the frenzy of the baseball diamond in the background, and then director Sam Wood shows us Gehrig's view from the end of the bench: the lip of the dugout wall obscuring Gehrig's view of his replacement at first base and cutting him off from the game he loves. From there, Wood cuts to a soft, tight close-up of Gehrig's forlorn face as an umpire in the distance shouts a normally joyous phrase that in this context feels like a punch to the stomach: "Play ball!"
That excellent sequence precedes what has become the film's most famous moment, when a glassy-eyed Cooper delivers the words that Gehrig had already made immortal: "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." In movie form, and probably in our collective memory, these are Gehrig's closing remarks, but in reality they occurred near the beginning of Gehrig's speech — the second line. Diversions from historical accuracy are hardly unusual in cinema, and the film's rearrangement remains true to the general spirit and content of Gehrig's remarks. Still, it's a shame Gehrig's actual speech isn't honored to the letter, because it's fit for the big screen: "When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body, it's a blessing," the real Gehrig said as he wrapped up his farewell speech. "When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that's the finest I know. So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for."
Alas, as the first audiences to see Pride of the Yankees already knew, Gehrig didn't have long to live. The final shots of this film, about a man for whom everything came easily until it all went away, are, fittingly enough, in perfect contrast with the closing shot of 1957's Fear Strikes Out, about a ballplayer for whom everything came with great difficulty. After Gehrig's final words, Wood captures the icon as he walks into the distance, toward the dugout, and then down the steps and into the tunnel, leaving behind him a world of spirit and light for one of loneliness and darkness — Jimmy Piersall's story in reverse — as the umpire once again calls out, "Play ball!" Baseball would go on after Gehrig, just like the world would go on after the war. There was no other choice. But heroes who died too soon wouldn't be quickly forgotten. Complete with numerous shots of long-gone baseball parks, not to mention a fairly meaty cameo by Babe Ruth as himself, Pride of the Yankees is indeed noteworthy for its cinematic preservation of baseball history. But more than anything it's a time capsule holding the mixed emotions of a battered nation.