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Reading baseball Baseball's best movie.

Byline: Richard Pete' Peterson

In her brilliant career, my daughter Amy has held key executive positions with opera, ballet, symphony and theater companies, but while she has spent her professional life contributing to the fine arts, she loves nothing better than to sit back with a tub of popcorn and watch a movie.

The other day she sent me a list of the top 35 baseball movies compiled by Rotten Tomatoes. The list was based on a compilation of reviews (fresh and rotten) in the year of the movie's release. She also found and sent me a list of the 25 best baseball movies selected by Will Leitch of MLB.com.

Once I went through the lists and compared them to the 100 greatest sports movies compiled by the editors of American History, it became clear that there were two golden eras of baseball movies The first, likely in response to World War II, produced a number of inspiring biographies of baseball heroes. The second, begun in the more skeptical 1980s, produced a number of movies with fallen or disgraced heroes.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the most popular baseball movies at the box-office included "The Babe Ruth Story," "The Stratton Story," "The Jackie Robinson Story," "The Pride of St. Louis," "The Winning Team" and "Fear Strikes Out," but the most popular and critically acclaimed was "The Pride of the Yankees," released just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The movie, based on the life of Yankee great Lou Gehrig, received 11 Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Gary Cooper, who played Gehrig, and best actress for Teresa Wright, who played Gehrig's devoted wife.

Cooper was the obvious choice for the lead role. He'd made a career out of playing unassuming heroes who,when faced with adversity, act with conviction and courage. Lou Gehrig, at the height of his career, was stricken with amyotropic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease. Known as the Iron Horse for playing in 2,130 consecutive games, Gehrig died tragically at the age of 36 from what became known as Lou Gehrig disease.

Cooper was at his best in Gehrig's farewell scene at Yankee Stadium. The fatally ill Gehrig tells his heart-broken fans that "people all say that I've had a tough break, but today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Unfortunately, Cooper was at his worst in the movie's baseball action scenes. Former major leaguer Lefty O'Doul, hired to tutor Cooper, said that "he threw the ball like an old woman tossing a hot biscuit."

The right-handed Cooper's biggest problem was that Lou Gehrig was left-handed. To make Cooper look less awkward, the film's technicians reversed his uniform number and Yankee logo, had him bat right-handed, and told him to run to third base. They then reversed the film to make it appear that Cooper was left-handed. They also sped up the film on Cooper's at bats to make his swing look more powerful, or, in Cooper's case, less feeble.

Moviegoers, however, overlooked Cooper's clumsiness on the ball field because "The Pride of the Yankees" is far more than a baseball movie. That becomes evident to those about to watch the movie when Baseball Hall of Fame writer Damon Runyon, in a voiceover, tells audiences that "The Pride of the Yankees" "is the story of a gentle young man who faced death with the same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans on far-flung fields of battle."

Beyond baseball, "The Pride of the Yankees" was made as a reminder to Americans, at the beginning of World War II, of the struggle ahead and the heartbreak and tragedy that so many families would face in the coming years. It is a movie that takes a baseball tragedy and elevates it to a national tragedy.

In "The Pride of the Yankees," Gehrig's nobility in the face of death, through Gary Cooper's brilliantly understated performance, became an inspiration at a time when America badly needed inspiration. There would be realistic baseball movies to come with actors like Kevin Costner, who could actually play baseball, but no baseball movie has meant more to Americans at the time of its release than "The Pride of the Yankees."

* Reading Baseball is a series of stories and commentaries by Richard "Pete" Peterson, co-author with his son Stephen, of "The Slide: Leyland, Bonds and the Star-Crossed Pittsburgh Pirates" and the editor of The St. Louis Baseball Reader. His essays appear regularly in the Times.
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Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:Jun 21, 2019
Words:758
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