- In an excerpt from his book Pride of the Yankees, Richard Sandomir tells the story behind the 1942 sports film starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig.
The following is excerpted from the book The Pride of the Yankees by Richard Sandomir, published on June 13, 2017 by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2017 Richard Sandomir.
Within days of Lou Gehrig’s death on June 2, 1941, Hollywood’s pursuit of his story began.
Gehrig’s life, and most important, his death, was the sort of heartwarming story that studios craved. World War II was expanding in Europe and calls for the United States to enter it were growing ever stronger. Movies with inspirational and anti-Nazi themes were in demand as Americans stateside sought communion with a continent under mounting attack by the Third Reich. Nothing could suit the country’s restive, fearful mood than the story of a modest and tragic hero of the sport that was still the undisputed national pastime.
Eleanor knew little about Hollywood but her agent, Christy Walsh, was more experienced. He was one of the first agents in sports, a tall, full-time hustler with slicked-backed hair and three-piece suits who had been a ubiquitous figure in the sports world since the early Twenties. Fixer, publicist, ad man, marketer and agent, Walsh also organized the barnstorming tour of teams headed by Gehrig and Babe Ruth after the 1927 season. He built a newspaper syndicate of about three dozen sportswriters who ghostwrote columns for baseball stars like Ruth and Gehrig and the World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker.
And Walsh concocted Gehrig’s Hollywood ambitions, issuing a statement in Lou’s name that announced his desire to play Tarzan after learning of the expiration of Johnny Weissmuller’s contract to play Edgar Rice Burroughs’s cinematic jungle swinger. To prove his seriousness, Lou slipped on a Fred Flintstone-like caveman outfit, as well as a large loin cloth.
“This is not a joke,” Walsh told the press.
Lou never slipped on Tarzan’s leopard skins but he did get a role as a rancher (named Lou Gehrig) in the 1938 western “Rawhide.”
In the brash, entrepreneurial Walsh, Eleanor Gehrig had a savvy guide through Hollywood at her most vulnerable time. She was not unsophisticated, but she was grieving and needed his help. He offered her his full devotion, writing her: “Anyway, El, you know that I consider it a pleasure and a privilege to be of the slightest assistance to you on this or any other thing that happens to come up. That’s the way Lou would want it and that’s the way I want it.”
He fulfilled that promise, writing her regularly in gossipy, typewritten letters with multiple postscripts, handwritten asides, and typos that he fixed in pencil. He became her faithful, breezy, witty and nosy confidant, offering her a front-row seat to the doings in Los Angeles while she was back home in her home in the Bronx.
The Pride of the Yankees
by Richard Sandomir
Walsh stepped gingerly around Eleanor’s grief, initially uncertain when she would be comfortable talking about negotiating a film deal.
“Not knowing how you have been feeling now that the shock is over,” he wrote her three weeks after Lou died. She may have been concerned about her future but had no apparent problem partnering with Walsh. She called him in Los Angeles on June 24 to tell him of her upcoming meeting with “Gone with the Wind” producer David O. Selznick.
Later that night, he wrote a letter full of advice.
“Outside of suggesting `terms,’ I don’t think there is really much I could tell you on the phone at this time. But Eleanor, for goodness sake, don’t let anyone stampede you. I don’t care how `nice’ they are or who they are. Take your time. This is not only a sacred and important subject…but it is a big undertaking. Make `em wait until you take plenty of time to think it out.”
He added: “Take your time and wear a poker face.”
Walsh warned her against lofty dreams of a windfall, anticipating her worries about supporting herself with Lou gone. He solicited advice from Winfield Sheehan, a retired production chief at Fox, and told Eleanor that regardless of the “ideals and beauty of Lou’s life and his brilliance at playing baseball, his life would lack the `entertainment value’ of Will Rogers.”
Sheehan told Walsh that the rights to Lou’s story might be worth between $25,000 and $35,000, in line with the figure that Walsh got for Ruth to star in his goofy silent-film comedy “Babe Comes Home” and for the great Notre Dame football Coach Knute Rockne for participating in the 1931 drama “Spirit of Notre Dame. Rockne died in a plane crash on his way to watch the filming.
Eleanor and Walsh were awaiting offers while reading what was being said in the trades and newspapers about their project. The prospect of a Gehrig movie was not yet big news but on June 30, a story in the Hollywood Reporter piqued their interest. It reported that Selznick was trying to hire Richards Vidmer, a New York Herald Tribune sports columnist to write the screenplay and had registered a title for the film: “The Great American Hero.” Vidmer covered Gehrig and claimed decades later to have been told by Lou’s doctor that he had two years to live after being diagnosed with ALS but never reported it, deeming it nobody’s business. “The public be informed, my ass!” he said in “No Cheering in the Press Box.”
But Walsh became skeptical about Selznick’s interest after meeting with one of his executives, Daniel O’Shea, who, by June 26, had failed to make an offer.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Walsh wrote to Eleanor, “I will not waste any more time on Selznick.”
He was still awaiting a “respectable” offer from MGM, but Eddie Mannix, its renowed general manager and in-house fixer (immortalized in the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!”), was not willing to spend too much. Walsh told Eleanor that Mannix doubted a film about Lou would be a “big picture” and in their meeting the studio executive summoned three “girl stenographers” to his office to prove his point. “Two of them said he was a baseball player and had died recently but the third one said that he was some kind of athlete and had died recently,” Walsh wrote. He considered Mannix’s version of market research ridiculous and assumed that he had told Dore Schary, an MGM executive who had shown more interest in a Gehrig film “to talk to me and try to chisel me down.”
Walsh was roused from his brief disappointment when the gossip columnist Louella Parsons telephoned him to learn more about the film project. Listening to her must have given him a thrill: Here was one very big-time yenta whispering advice and encouragement into the wide-open ear of a less important one. He told Eleanor that Parsons was a “sincere admirer of Lou’s and thinks that the motion picture industry and the American public need just such a story at the time.” She told him: “They ought to pay plenty” and confided that MGM would do a good job with the film but that if Selznick signed Eleanor to a deal, he would “let the story lay for five or six years.”
She was wrong.
The answer would come quickly, and from another studio entirely.
Samuel Goldwyn needed to be persuaded to make a film about Gehrig, who played a sport that he did not know and would not on his own think worthy of a movie. He would get the necessary push from Niven Busch Jr.—a writer whose Hollywood aspirations would lead him to a successful screenwriting career and a job as a story editor with Goldwyn.
Unlike Goldwyn, Busch was a baseball fan who had met and interviewed Gehrig. A dozen years earlier, Busch was writing short takes about speakeasies and profiles for The New Yorker when he was assigned to profile Gehrig, which sent him to 9 Meadow Lane in New Rochelle. Gehrig had bought the house in 1927 and was living there with his parents. Lou was well into his great career—he was just two seasons past an astonishing MVP season when he hit .373, slugged 47 home runs and knocked in 173 runs. But personally, Gehrig did not impress Busch.
From the opening words of the article, Busch was openly contemptuous of Lou, as if he had expected the charisma of Ruth and discovered a dullard with little to say there in his place.
Busch wrote him off as an urban bumpkin and mama’s boy who “has accidentally got himself into a class with Babe Ruth and Dempsey and other beetle-browed, self-conscious sluggers who are the heroes of our nation. This is ridiculous—he is not fitted in any way to have a public. I don’t think he is either stimulated or discouraged by the reactions of the crowds that watch his ponderous antics at first base for the Yankees or cheer the hits he knocks out with startling regularity and almost legendary power.”
A dozen years later, though, Busch saw something more majestic and cinematic about Gehrig’s life and sudden death from a disease few had heard of or understood. But Goldwyn would be tough to convince. A Polish immigrant, Goldwyn was a self-made man, an immigrant who turned his humble start as a glovemaker in upstate New York into a legendary career as a tough, pugnacious and temperamental independent producer with a resume of films like “Dodsworth,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Goldwyn Follies” and “The Little Foxes.” And, with little knowledge about baseball, he brushed aside Busch’s Gehrig pitch by asking, “Who’s Lou Gehrig?” and declaring a baseball film “box office poison.”
Busch found another way to change Goldwyn’s mind. Sometime between late June and early July, Busch invited the mogul to watch the newsreels of Lou delivering his speech on July 4, 1939, between games of a Yankees-Washington Senators doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. Goldwyn might have been humoring Busch by agreeing to watch the newsreels in a private screening room at his studio in West Hollywood. Maybe he would chastise Busch for wasting his time with a ballplayer’s farewell to baseball.
And as the lights went down, Goldwyn might have fidgeted as a marching band performed; as Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, Postmaster General James Farley and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia made brief speeches, and as Lou received gifts that he had become too weak to hold onto.
But then something else happened.
Reluctantly, Gehrig spoke. He had stood in the day’s heat in a uniform that sagged on his once muscular frame.
“Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about a bad break,” he began, delivering a speech from memory. “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He thanked his wife, his parents, his Yankees managers and his mother-in-law (in the widely accepted version of the speech that he veered from according to the day’s newspaper accounts).
He thanked the fans, the groundskeepers and the rival New York Giants.
He thanked them for a life that would end in less than two years.
When the lights went up, Goldwyn was wiping the tears from his eyes, according to his biographer A. Scott Berg.
“Rut them again,” he told Busch.
After the second viewing, Goldwyn demanded that his top advisor, James Mulvey be summoned on the phone.
“Call Mrs. Gehrig,” he told Mulvey. “Tell her there’s a remote possibility that we might be interested in the story of her husband.”
It was, indeed, more than a possibility. It was a cinch.
Goldwyn agreed to pay Eleanor $30,000 and she soon boarded the Union Pacific Streamliner, bound for Los Angeles, for a press conference on July 15th to announce their deal. The immediate question about the film was who would play Gehrig. Eleanor told the Hollywood Reporter that Gary Cooper was her husband’s favorite actor but that Spencer Tracy would be “ideal for the role which will stress the story of a brave, courageous man, rather than the career of a baseball player.”
To Walsh the only press clip that mattered was a short item from Parsons. “The biggest movie plum, for my money, is the life of Lou Gehrig,” she wrote in her column. “I should think the story of Gehrig, clean living, likable, would make as great a picture as `Knute Rockne, All-American.’ ” And she had some advice for Goldwyn: stage a nationwide casting call for the role of Gehrig (even if Cooper, still under contract to Goldwyn) was virtually certain to get the role).
“‘Gone with the Wind’s’ searching for Scarlett O’Hara [which resulted in Vivien Leigh getting the part] proved you can arouse interest in casting and there is no public hero so dear to the heart of the American boy as was Lou Gehrig.”
And Goldwyn would do just that, suggesting days after signing up Eleanor that he was starting from scratch. “Everyone wants to know who I think should play Lou and I haven’t the faintest idea,” he said.
The search—a months-long publicity stunt—had begun.