Friday, July 14, 2017

The Timeless Tale of Lou Gehrig

"All the arguing in the world can't change the decision of the umpire."

Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper)

Of all those who have worn the pinstripes of the New York Yankees, few have worn them with as much distinction as a man who never played an inning of major league ball, Gary Cooper.

Cooper portrayed Yankee great Lou Gehrig in "The Pride of the Yankees," which premiered on this day in 1942.

I'll save you from doing the math. That's 75 years ago, but the story itself is timeless.

Not only was he the pride of the Yankees. Gehrig was the pride of humanity, and it is a story that seems to be too good to be true — until you realize it is true.

Well, there were some details that only an expert of some kind would know — like the fact that even though Gehrig's jersey number could be seen in re–creations of World Series play from the 1920s, the Yankees did not start using numbers until the very end of that decade. Or the fact that some of the car models that were seen in the movie did not exist at the time when they were supposedly in use.

But Gehrig was, if anything, more noble in real life than he was in the movie. And there was no better choice to play him than Cooper, the 11th–greatest male movie star, according to the American Film Institute.

Cooper made a career of playing characters, both real and fictional, that were worthy of admiration.

He played Sergeant York, a real–life hero from World War I. After he played Gehrig, he played fictional hero Will Kane in "High Noon."

The American Film Institute included all three roles in its list of the top 50 movie heroes of all time. Deservedly so, too. If Cooper had not died in 1961, he might well have been cast to play Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," judged by AFI to be the most heroic part in movie history — but I'll tell you the truth. It is hard for me to imagine anyone other than Gregory Peck as Atticus.

To get back to the casting of "The Pride of the Yankees" ...

There were times when Cooper wasn't quite right for the part — like when he was supposed to be playing Gehrig during his college days. Cooper was in his 40s, simply too old for that. It would have been better to have a younger actor play the younger Gehrig — perhaps the movie's producers couldn't find one who looked enough like Cooper.

Other than that, though, he was perfect for the part. Teresa Wright was perfect in her role as his wife, and Walter Brennan, a three–time Oscar winner who appeared with Cooper in "Sergeant York," was ideal as sports writer Sam Blake.

Cooper and Wright were rewarded with Oscar nominations for their work. Brennan was not.

In all "The Pride of the Yankees" received 11 Oscar nominations but only won one — for Best Film Editing.

For me the defining moment of Cooper's performance was not the re–creation of Gehrig's farewell to baseball but rather when the character visited a hospitalized child and promised to hit two home runs for him in a World Series game.

Turned out there were some inaccuracies in that tale, but that really doesn't bother me. It was the kind of thing Gehrig would have done. It was just the kind of guy he was. Like when he delivered his "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech less than two years before his death.

He knew he was dying. Where many people would be thinking only of themselves and the unfairness of their situation, Gehrig's heart was full of gratitude for the love that surrounded him in Yankee Stadium that day.

He never seemed to think of himself. He was always thinking of the other guy. And when that Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day was held at Yankee Stadium in 1939, his words reflected gratitude for what was given to him, not bitterness over what had been taken away.

Those of us who are less saintly can only hope to face our deaths with that kind of dignity.

It took a special actor to bring that to the big screen, and Gary Cooper was a special actor. As great as he was as Sergeant York and Will Kane, his performance as Lou Gehrig may have been his finest.