This article was written by Frank Ardolino
This article was published in 2002 Baseball Research Journal
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig formed the most feared batting twosome in the history of baseball. Batting third and fourth, they served as the heart of the great Yankee teams that won three World Series between 1927 and 1933. Despite their heroics, Ruth and Gehrig played a different type of baseball, led decidedly different lives, and had different personalities. In this essay I would like to explore how these differences were expressed and perceived during their actual careers and in the cinematic biography of Lou Gehrig, Pride of the Yankees.
The friction between Ruth and Gehrig in their baseball careers developed primarily from their different personalities, their divergent public images, and from the influence of other people on their relationship. Given all of these factors, their feud seems inevitable and regrettable. By contrast, in Pride of the Yankees the two stars are not separated by a feud but only by their personalities and the images that result from them.
There are two related facts about Lou Gehrig’s career and life; he was a great player overshadowed by the even greater and more flamboyant Babe Ruth, and he achieved immortality for his consecutive game skein and his tragic physical deterioration and death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the crippling disease which is now identified by his name.
As a player, Gehrig was known for the regularity of his prodigious productivity. He hit 493 home runs, compiled a lifetime BA of .340, averaged 146 RBI and 138 runs scored for 13 consecutive seasons, was MVP in 1927 and 1936, won the Triple Crown in 1934, and batted .361 for seven World Series. Despite these amazing accomplishments, Gehrig’s career performance and personality were eclipsed by the mighty Ruth; Lou’s homers did not soar in the same majestic way as the Babe’s, and he did not swagger and seek publicity.
As Lou remarked about himself: ”I’m not a headline guy … I’m just a guy who’s in there every day. The fellow that follows Babe in the batting order. When Babe’s turn at bat is over, … the fans are still talking about him when I come up. If I stood on my head at the plate, nobody’d pay any attention.”
While Ruth hit monumental homers, indulged all of his appetites, earned fines, and caused his physical collapse, Gehrig was the “Iron Man,” a monument to clean living and steadiness, who stated in 1939 that “I’ve been in the business seventeen years and I don’t think there were a half dozen nights … that I didn’t average ten hours sleep every night.” Fittingly, his last manager, Joe McCarthy, eulogized Gehrig as a “perfect gentleman.”
An integral part of the relationship between Ruth and Gehrig was the feud which resulted in their not speaking for years. There have been a number of speculations about the reasons for their hostility, but the most plausible explanation is that Lou’s mother, an outspoken and domineering woman, did not like Claire, Babe’s showgirl second wife.
Mom Gehrig used to allow Dorothy, Babe’s adopted daughter from his first marriage, to visit her. On one occasion she noted that Claire dressed Dorothy like a nine-year-old tomboy, while she always dressed her own daughter, Julia, in the finest attire. Later, Gehrig’s mother told another Yankees wife about Claire’s favoring Julia over Dorothy, and this got back to Claire, who relayed it to Babe, who told Lou to tell his mother to “mind her own goddamned business!”
As Robinson points out, Lou was so attached to his mother that Ruth’s outburst ended their friendship: “The relationship between Babe and Lou, teetering for years over their basic differences in temperament — Lou’s frugality, introversion, and need for privacy versus the Babe’s prodigality, extroversion, and constant need for acclaim — chilled permanently.”
Lou’s consecutive game streak of 2,130 games (broken by Ripken in 1995) became the stuff of legend for his physical stamina and endurance. From its beginning on June 2, 1925, to its conclusion on May 2, 1939, Lou suffered severe lumbago, broke every one of his fingers, and had 17 assorted fractures of his hands which healed by themselves. As a result of his injuries, Lou remarked: “I don’t think anybody else will try it again, they won’t be that crazy. I am interested in it, the fans seem to be … enough to make me believe I ought to go as far as I can with it.”
But Ruth, as a result of his break with Gehrig, gave a more scathing assessment of the renowned streak in 1937, two years after his retirement: “This Iron Man stuff is just baloney … I think he’s making one of the worst mistakes a ball player can make. The guy ought to learn to sit on the bench and rest. They’re not going to pay off on how many games he’s played in a row.”
Lou responded without attacking Babe personally, but he was hurt by the belittling of his record: “I’m not stupid enough to play if my value to the club is endangered. I honestly believe that I’ve never been tired on the field.” Lou persevered until he could no longer play and was forced to relinquish his place in the lineup to Babe Dahlgren.
Ironically, it was with his premature retirement and death that Gehrig received his most enduring glory. Tristram Coffin has depicted Gehrig as the tragic warrior- hero cut down in his prime who achieves a sentimentalized heroic mythos. When he appeared in uniform for Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4, 1939, he finally and fully emerged from the shadow of Babe Ruth to gain his own measure of acceptance and adulation.
As Jack Sher has stated: “Lou had the one elusive thing he had always wanted most: the wholehearted love of baseball fans and people everywhere in the world.” In his typically overheated fashion, Paul Gallico captured the sentiment and poignancy of Lou’s farewell when 62,000 fans assembled to pay tribute to the dying athlete: “On July 4, 1939, there took place the most tragic and touching scenes ever enacted on a baseball diamond — the funeral services for Henry Louis Gehrig. Lou Gehrig attended them in person.”
Members of the famed 1927 Yankee team — Lazzeri, Meusel, Combs, Pennock, Koenig, Bengough, Dugan, Hoyt, and Pipgras — joined with the current Yankee team and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Postmaster General James Farley, and Lou’s parents to celebrate his retirement.
Manager Joe McCarthy began by paying tribute to Lou for his brilliant play, endurance, and team spirit. Then Sid Mercer, a veteran sportswriter serving as master of ceremonies, presented Lou with gifts from the Yankees, fans, and the New York Giants. On the trophy given to him by his teammates there was inscribed a poem by sportswriter John Kieran. The poem depicted Lou as a warrior who always came through in the game, and, more important, was facing the most serious human test with graceful heroism. At this point in the ceremony, Lou was unable to convey his thanks, so he told Mercer to speak for him.
Then the fans began to chant, “We want Gehrig, we want Gehrig,” and Lou dabbed his eyes with his hankie, blew his nose, and moved unsteadily to the mike. McCarthy had warned Babe Dahlgren to be ready to catch Lou if he began to falter. But Lou clearly delivered his famous farewell speech, which has been unsarcastically referred to as baseball’s equivalent to the Gettysburg Address.
He began with the seemingly improbable statement that he considered himself, “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” To prove this, he listed all the people and blessings he had to be thankful for, including the fans, Ruppert, Barrow, Huggins, McCarthy, his teammates, his parents, and, finally, his beloved wife, “who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed … So I close in saying that I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
At the conclusion of the speech, the crowd let out a tremendous roar, and Babe Ruth, the feud now forgotten, rushed forward and threw his arms around Lou’s neck, creating an image which became the picture of the year. However, Bill Dickey, the famed Yankee catcher, claimed that this hug was one-sided on the Babe’s part because Lou “never forgave him.”
Nevertheless, in his autobiography, Ruth described. the effect of his response to Lou’s speech in a different manner. He said he would never forget that day because “Lou spoke as I never thought I’d hear a man speak in a ball park. Every word he said plainly came from his heart, and [in] the … crowd … there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere. . . . [W]hen he said ‘I consider myself the luckiest man in the world,’ I couldn’t stand it any longer. I went over to him and put my arm around him, and though I tried to cheer him up, I could not keep from crying.”
Lou Gehrig died two years later at the age of 39 on June 2, 1941.
One year after his death, Pride of the Yankees, the story of Gehrig’s life, was made, starring Gary Cooper as Lou, Teresa Wright as Eleanor, and Walter Brennan as the sportswriter Sam Blake. The script was taken from a story by Paul Gallico, and the editor was Daniel Mandell, who received an Academy Award for his work.
Although this film became the most successful sports movie up to 1942, it almost was never made. When the producer Sam Goldwyn first heard its plot, he thought it would be box office poison. But then he saw a news clip of Lou’s farewell speech and cried profusely before agreeing to make the movie.
For Goldwyn, who had immigrated to the United States at the age of 13, alone and penniless, Pride of the Yankees presented a “poignant fable of perseverance and humility, qualities that … [he] … admired and believed were firmly rooted in the America he loved.” As the shy hero, Gary Cooper, who had just won the Academy Award for his role as another unassuming national hero in Sergeant York (1941), effectively provided the image of the dignified, deferential, and enduring Gehrig.
Pride of the Yankees concerns Gehrig’s rise to baseball prominence, his love for Eleanor, his relationship to his immigrant parents, his illness and death, and his relationship with Babe Ruth. It is this last aspect that I will concentrate on, showing how the film presents the rivalry between the two great Yankees in the form of their different personalities, as depicted by the antithetical acting styles of Cooper and Babe Ruth, who plays himself as a loud, bumptious, well-liked, fun-loving, ebullient, and phenomenon. In his scenes he bursts into action and penetrates and dominates our vision, forcing us to concentrate on him.
As Robinson states, although Ruth looked like a “truant from an ‘Our Gang Comedy’ … the Babe gave the movie hearty validity.” Erickson praises the role as his best, made even more ingratiating by his “full-faced smile,” an insight which I will emphasize in my analysis of the film.
Pride of the Yankees begins with an epigraph by Damon Runyon which equates Lou’s heroism with the simple doggedness and bravery exhibited by American soldiers in battle. Befitting its wartime release in 1942, the movie is dedicated to showing that Gehrig’s quiet, soldierly personality, herculean work ethic, and heroic acceptance of death are more commendable than Ruth’s oversized mythos.
In order to create this image, it was necessary to depict Ruth as an inflated ego who is more interested in promoting himself and satisfying his appetite. Ruth emerges as a media-savvy superstar, while Lou exemplifies more traditional and reputable qualities.
The relationship between Ruth and Gehrig as future superstar teammates is ironically introduced at the outset when young Lou tries to bribe his way into a sandlot game by offering the captain a Babe Ruth card. The urchin sneers at the “rookie” card, but lets Lou in the game anyway. Lou smashes a long drive through a window and is dragged home by a cop to his parents, who disapprove of his ball playing. This scene shows the difference in the ages of Gehrig, who is only a boy, and Ruth, who is already in the big leagues. Also, although Lou initially attempts to use Ruth’s stature as a big leaguer to gain entrance into the game, he subsequently hits a homer and earns his way through his own proficiency.
When Lou attends Columbia University, he breaks another window with a tremendous blast which lands in the office of the football coach, who is talking to the reporter/scout Sam Blake. Blake is a cross between Paul Krichell, famed Yankee scout, and Fred Lieb, reporter and friend of Gehrig. Blake writes that Lou should be considered the “Babe Ruth of Columbia,” and he convinces Lou to sign with the Yankes and give up his parentally imposed engineering aspirations.
Before his first game with the Yankees, Lou enters the empty locker room alone; sheepishly and admiringly he looks at the great names on the locker tags. When most of his teammates enter together shortly thereafter, Lou attempts to say hello by lifting his arm in greeting, but they do not pay attention to him as he sits way off in the corner. Then the Babe bursts in chomping on a hot dog, tugs at the shirt of one teammate, and pulls off the hat of another. The room is immediately galvanized by Ruth’s magnetic presence, and one of his teammates asks him if the homer he hit yesterday was 38 or 39. The Babe roars, “I don’t know. I’ll hit ’em, and you count ’em.” Lou sits on his stool lacing his spikes and smiling from ear to ear like a kid in a candy store.
Gehrig’s childlike behavior continues when he steps on the field and is awed by cavernous Yankee Stadium. The Babe is playing pepper, and the ball gets by him and rolls to Lou, who picks it up and then freezes as he looks at Ruth. Ruth coaxes him twice to “give me the ball, son,” as if talking to a child. Later, when Lou is told to bat for Pipp, he runs out of the dugout and slips on the bats, earning the nickname “Tanglefoot.” When Lou falls down, Babe is right there, looming behind him in the dugout and laughing at this awkward rookie.
After the game, the Yankees go to a crowded restaurant. The Babe marches up to where the meat is being prepared on a spit and orders steak, smothered in pork chops and mushrooms. His face is as big and meaty as the food he orders. By contrast, Lou arrives quietly with Sam and allows the writer to suggest fish for dinner.
This scene demonstrates their respective appetites: Ruth rushes to the food and demands a gargantuan order, while Lou is almost ascetic, accepting the waiter’s biblical order of fish. The Babe’s moon face looms like a planet dominating the events revolving around him, but Lou is sheepish and retiring, unable and unwilling to make the demands and exert the control that Ruth does.
When the Yankees travel by train, Ruth quickly becomes the center of attraction again. Miller Huggins asks if the Babe made the train, and then we see him striding down the aisle wearing a new straw hat. He muscles his way into the card game, warning everyone that this is his fifth straw hat and if anyone ruins it he will smash his teeth.
Nevertheless, his teammates quickly pass the hat around after Babe removes it. Everyone takes a chomp out of the brim, and when it gets to Lou, the ringleader tells him if he wants to be one of the guys he will take a bite. Lou takes two for good measure, but as he does so the other culprits scatter and Ruth catches him at it.
In this episode the Babe emerges as the clown prince who, like Falstaff, is not only humorous himself but excites humor in others. The other players love to rib him because he is a great guy. They include Lou in the game only to make him the patsy caught in the act by the looming Babe, who grabs him. Ironically, the joke on Ruth involves biting chunks out of his hat, a parody of his own appetites.
Hank Hammond (Dan Duryea), a sneering, cynical reporter, ends the sequence by mocking Lou’s naivete and dullness, but Sam defends Lou’s character. He argues that Gehrig’s steadiness is exciting; Lou creates no scandal, does his job and nothing else. He creates “fun” by playing well, and the fans like him for his dedication.
This running argument between the reporters serves, as Edelman has remarked, as the movie’s substitute for the real-life feud between the two players. Hammond continually mocks Gehrig as “too good to be true” while Blake defends Gehrig’s steadiness. They serve as the journalistic chorus who cue the audience to see Gehrig as more honest and commendable than Ruth.
The rivalry reaches a climax in the hospital scene with the sick boy, who parallels Johnny Sylvester, the injured boy whom the Babe comforted by giving him a ball and hitting a homer. The scene is constructed on the opposition between Ruth’s and Gehrig’s styles. Hank has arranged for the Babe to appear in a charitable guise with the reporters and photographers ready to report on his kindness. The signal is given, and on cue Ruth goes into action, checking to see if the cameras are rolling. Bill Dickey, playing himself, and Gehrig bow their heads uneasily as they recognize Ruth’s display of meretricious showmanship.
By contrast, Lou waits until everyone is gone to approach the boy, who cajoles him into promising two homers. The only other person witnessing this scene is Sam, who had hidden behind the door after everyone left. During the game, the Babe hits his homer, and Lou fulfills his promise to knock two home runs, but he makes much less of a fuss about his feat than Ruth does.
When the Yanks win the World Series, they erupt in bedlam on the train. The Babe runs wild, ripping clothes and hats; at one point his big moon face bursts into a close-up as he rushes to the front of the club car to order six hot dogs. This scene provides another example of his pushing aggressively and repetitively forward to declare his meaty presence. By contrast, Lou’s celebration is more subdued and of shorter duration, as he runs off in the middle of the festivities to propose to Eleanor.
On the day that Lou retires, Babe, dressed in civvies, steps forward to embrace Lou before his speech, which reverses the order of events on the real “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.” When Lou begins his famous speech, we see Babe’s huge moon face in the left-hand corner framed by the various microphones.
But as Lou continues, Babe’s face — the looming planet that has overshadowed Lou’s career and personality throughout the movie — disappears, finally eclipsed by Lou’s heroism concerning his crippling disease. At the conclusion of his speech, he begins to walk off the diamond, and Babe, reduced to being a fan, applauds as he passes by. We follow Lou’s march toward his interment in the dugout, the shadowy place of death. As he recedes, Lou gets smaller and smaller; his body disappears, but his mythos as the warrior cut down in his prime begins.
FRANK ARDOLINO is a professor of English at the University of Hawaii. He has recently finished an article entitled “Playing in the Bush League: ‘The Rookie’ and the Baseball Presidency,” which will be forthcoming in Nine.
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