Sunday, February 06, 2011

Pride of the Yankees

Today, of course, is Super Bowl Sunday.

It is always a special day for football fans, bittersweet in its way because it marks the absolute end of the football season.

After today, football fans will have to be content with offseason news for the next six or seven months — a prospect that is grimmer than usual, given the uncertain status of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement.

As a result, today's game could take on even more significance than usual if it turns out to be the NFL's last one for quite awhile.

I grew up in the South so it is hard for me to comprehend why anyone wouldn't like football. But I know that such people do exist. For some people, the only real pastime in America is baseball; for many of them, Super Bowl Sunday is merely another milestone along the road to the next baseball season.

If you are such a person, if you are counting the days until pitchers and catchers report, Turner Classic Movies has the alternative for you at 4:45 p.m. (Central) — 1942's "Pride of the Yankees" starring Gary Cooper in the title role.

No better choice could have been made to play the part. I don't really know if anyone else was even considered, but I can't think of anyone else who was active in the movies at that time who could have done a better job of re–creating Gehrig's now–legendary farewell speech.

In my opinion, it is easily the finest moment in baseball history, even though the movie played around with the actual sequence of the words (and, in some cases, the words themselves).

Here is what Gehrig actually said:
"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

"Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.

"When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that's something. When you have a wonderful mother–in–law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that's something. 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. 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."

And here is what Cooper said in the movie:
"I have been walking onto ball fields for 16 years, and I've never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. I have had the great honor to have played with these great veteran ballplayers on my left — Murderers' Row, our championship team of 1927. I have had the further honor of living with and playing with these men on my right — the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees of today.

"I have been given fame and undeserved praise by the boys up there behind the wire in the press box, my friends, the sports writers. I have worked under the two greatest managers of all time, Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy.

"I have a mother and father who fought to give me health and a solid background in my youth. I have a wife, a companion for life, who has shown me more courage than I ever knew.

"People all say that I've had a bad break. But today ... today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

It is, admittedly, something of a tearjerker, but it is also one of the most inspiring films ever made. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and won one of them. The American Film Institute ranked it 22nd on its "100 Years ,,, 100 Cheers" list of the most inspirational films of all time.

It was recognized as an inspirational film by TIME, which observed that the movie was somewhat light on its sports footage but long on a "grade–A love story."

TIME was so carried away with the love story, in fact, that most of its review centered on Cooper's young co–star, Teresa Wright, who was appearing in only her third movie.

"If moviegoers like her in it," wrote TIME, "she may become cinemadom's foremost dramatic actress. If they don't, she can 1) try again; 2) remain what she is: one of the best young dramatic actresses Hollywood has turned up in many a talent hunt."

Wright's filmography, which includes credits for such films as "Mrs. Miniver," "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "Shadow of a Doubt," indicates the quality of the productions in which she participated — and that says a lot about the quality of her performances.

But, looking at it from the perspective of some 69 years, "Pride of the Yankees" was the story of Lou Gehrig, a real man who died prematurely of a disease that still ends too many lives too soon. He played baseball better than most and was admired for it by millions.

As I said, I can't think of anyone who would have been a better choice to portray Gehrig than Gary Cooper. Neither, apparently, can radio personality Kevin Nelson, who said, in "The Greatest Stories Ever Told About Baseball," that "Gehrig was to baseball what Gary Cooper was to the movies: a figure of unimpeachable integrity, massive and incorruptible, a hero."

I recommend for your consideration the heroic tale of Lou Gehrig.