Friday, May 19, 2023

This Day in Baseball History (Gehrig’s Columbia Clout Starts Lou Lore)

May 19, 1923—Not yet in Yankee pinstripes, Columbia University sophomore sensation Lou Gehrig gave evidence of the power that would make him one of the greatest baseball players of all time with a home run that became the stuff of legend.

Fans of the future Hall of Famer and the screen idol who played him nearly two decades later, Gary Cooper, will recall the scene from the popular 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees that focused on this moment. 

It’s a real-life version of the bust-the-fixtures highlights that occur so often in The Natural, except that in this case it didn’t occur in a fictional major-league ballpark but on Columbia’s real-life South Field, where it was reported to be the longest homer hit there to that time.

But did Gehrig’s blast really knock out a window in the School of Journalism? What got me interested in this question was Leslie Zukor’s article in the new Spring/Summer issue of Columbia Magazine.

Contemporary accounts, Zukor indicated, varied in where they said the homer landed. My old newspaper, The Columbia Daily Spectator, pointed to “in front of [the School of] Journalism.” Similarly, The New York Times reported that the ball came down “in the small campus surrounding the School of Journalism building.” The Hartford Daily Courant, which covered Columbia’s opponent that day, Wesleyan University, claimed that “the sphere went over the center field stands and hit the School of Journalism building.”

What do we have here? A Bunyanesque blast that flew 400 feet and destroyed the psyche of Wesleyan pitcher Joseph Layton “Layt” Moore that day. But it doesn’t seem to have destroyed any windows. So where did this notion come from?

Maybe eyewitnesses simply misremembered the end point of the home run, or maybe, from so far away, they took their best guess about where it should have gone. But, if tracing the legend to a single source or sources is difficult, it’s easier to cite what gave the story “legs”: The Pride of the Yankees.

In that box-office smash, the reporter who will become Gehrig’s great advocate and friend (Walter Brennan’s “Sam Blake”) is talking to the phenom’s football coach (Gehrig was on a football rather than baseball scholarship to the school) when the sound of breaking glass interrupts their talk at the same time it puts an exclamation point on it.

In a way, that scene is typical of so much about the film and its tendency towards sharpening and shining up actuality. 

A major truth of Gehrig’s career is at the core of this scene: he was already an athlete of raw but astonishing skill just waiting to be discovered by the wider baseball world. He did indeed give observers something to talk about that day: not just his plate productivity—that homer, a single and two walks—but his three-hit throttling on the mound. (The same thing had happened a month earlier, in a game against Ivy League rival Cornell, when Gehrig hit--you guessed it--"a towering and legendary home run, possibly the longest in Hoy Field’s history," according to Jeff Stein's 2015 article in the Ithaca Voice.)

But it’s far more questionable whether Gehrig busted the window at Columbia's School of Journalism. And he didn’t need a sportswriter to boost his status: Yankee superscout Paul Krichell (who would go on to alert the team to, among others, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford) had discovered him over a month before at a game against Rutgers, and by the time of the Wesleyan game had persuaded Gehrig to sign with the Bronx Bombers. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t a “Sam Blake” (the closest equivalent in Gehrig’s life was probably sportswriter Fred Lieb).

There’s another aspect of this scene that is not so immediately apparent: this astounding feat occurs, in effect, off the field. 

Before being cast, Cooper had no interest in baseball, and he had to undergo intense training by coach and former player Lefty O’Doul in the art of hitting. The star’s lack of ease with the bat probably contributed to the odd fact that, in a movie of roughly 2 hours and 10 minutes about a tremendous baseball player, less than 10 minutes feature any action on the diamond.

Even the follow-up to the Columbia sequence (Gehrig disappointing his mother’s wish that he graduate with an engineering degree by signing with the Yankees) misattributes his motivation: it wasn’t to pay for her medical care, but his father’s.

Nobody should be surprised by such departures from history: Hollywood has always been uninterested in fidelity to fact, and Pride of the Yankees producer Samuel Goldwyn had no interest in a film about baseball (or even the subject of Gehrig) until he was told about "The Iron Horse's" “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech on the day held in his honor in 1939.

As sportswriter Paul Gallico (who wrote the “story” for the Oscar-nominated film) wrote to Gehrig’s widow Eleanor during filming: “No matter what I know, we are going to catch hell from the sports writers so we might as well face it. None of the boys will ever understand what we were up against in trying to make baseball fit into a Sam Goldwyn movie.” (Not even the screenplay, co-written by fellow Columbia alum Herman Mankiewicz, seems to have improved its commitment to reality.)

In short, much of the early going in the movie consists of facts changed for no particular reason; characters or situations sandpapered from rough reality (Gehrig's possessive mother didn't have an ambivalent relationship to her daughter-in-law but a positively warlike one); or concern about a global reality that hangs over the portrayal of its driven subject (Gehrig's success was a demonstration to a world at war that America was a place where virtue and hard work was rewarded).

In the end, it didn’t matter. Whatever offenses against the truth occur in the first half of the film, from the moment that Lou and Eleanor notice the first distressing signs of the ALS that will end his livelihood and even his life, all of that is forgotten and forgiven.  

The poignant interplay between Cooper and Teresa Wright as Eleanor in the closing scenes underscores a larger truth that the testimony of his teammates and subsequent biographical research confirmed: that with the love and support of his vivacious wife, this shy, often insecure superstar faced a mystifying disease with an undaunted courage that inspired millions around the world, all the way down to the present day—including many with no real interest in what may have happened on his Ivy League campus 100 years ago today.

As for me: Gehrig ranks, together with Jackie Robinson, as my favorite baseball player. This blog post I wrote 14 years ago, on the 70th anniversary of the end of his extraordinary 2,300-consecutive game streak, goes a long way to explain why, I hope.  

But ultimately, the novelist Thomas Wolfe put it far more poetically than I ever could: the Yankee great, he wrote in You Can’t Go Home Again, embodied “the faultless velvet of the diamond.”

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