Lou Gehrig and Creating Distance

Video: Gehrig’s farewell

Actual, though partial, footage of Lou Gehrig’s farewell address.


I am a member of a movie club on Facebook, and in anticipation of the new Jackie Robinson film, 42, the club is watching a slew of nonfiction baseball movies. I recently took some time to watch The Pride of the Yankees, a 1942 film about New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig, who died in 1941 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

What surprised me most was that the film reached the theaters almost a year to the day after Gehrig’s death. This is not uncommon for many biopics (think Ray or Michael Jackson’s This Is It for recent examples), but since Gehrig died so young and so many characters in the film were still alive (fellow former Yankees including Babe Ruth actually played themselves in the film), I believe the film suffered.

Compelling details from Gehrig’s life disappeared from the story. There is no mention of his father’s alcoholism. The Yankees clubhouse engages in innocent, childish frivolities. His run-in with NCAA regulations received no mention. And most strange to me: The writers changed the truth about his diagnosis (the movie has him hiding the diagnosis from his wife, Eleanor, but in reality the opposite occurred).

It was not just that they changed details about his life — alterations are necessary when transmuting real life into an artistic medium. No, what bothered me the most was that they changed reality in favor of milquetoast conflicts and melodrama.

Instead of alcoholic, Gehrig’s father was merely goofy. In its place, the writers created a whole new conflict, a cliched take at a mother’s aspiration: In real life, his mother encouraged his athletics; in the movie, he has to hide his baseball career from her. So rather than deal with the real, powerful tension of an alcoholic family member, the film settled for a prance through easily-resolved tropes.

In Gehrig’s actual farewell speech — of which there is no complete audio recording (somehow) — he thanks both his father and mother for working hard so that he could get an education and play sports. But since his blue-collar mother was the breadwinner and his father often unemployed as a result of his drinking and illnesses, this was a thanks with subtext. Also, he mentions his mother-in-law before mentioning his own parents — yet she’s not even a character in the film.

I am reminded of Mark Twain’s autobiography. The famed author sealed away his autobiography and required that 100 years pass before anyone publish the manuscript. As such, he could write with comfort and confidence about important relationships, controversial topics, and other famous people.

I think one of the major problems of The Pride of the Yankees was its nearness to the event. Too many people had a vested in the story. The reputation of Babe Ruth, American Hero, had net yet morphed into Babe Ruth, Tragic Hero. The parents, Heinrich and Christina Gehrig, were still very much alive when the movie debuted, as well as Gehrig’s wife.

Perhaps the recency compelled the writers to veer away from the truly painful parts of the story? Perhaps they were merely trying to capitalize on the recent death of a celebrity? It is hard to say.

But I do believe we can take away a lesson about distance. Writing about recent events while they are still recent ensures a security of details. If you are writing about the death of a family member in the year he or she died, you will still remember small, powerful details from the funeral, from the final days, from their life. After ten years, these details slip away.

But perhaps the ones that remain are the most important. Perhaps the marshmallow sweet potato casserole, served in the basement of the church, is the most important detail of my grandmother’s funeral. Moreover, when the bite of grief scars over, sentimentality melts. Time offers a greater perspective, and we can start to see not just the final days, but the wholeness of a life or an event.

Sometimes, it takes a little distance to tell it right.

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