By Matt Singer
In honor of the start of the 2008 baseball season, IFC.com will be paying tribute to the national pastime’s long relationship with the movies every day this week by giving you everything you’d ever want to know about the odd little quasi-autobiographical ditties in which baseball players have played themselves. Peanuts and crackerjacks not included.
Directed by Ray Taylor
As Himself: Lou Gehrig
Game Story: Celebrated ballplayer Lou Gehrig announces he’s through with the game and is moving out west to live on his sister’s farm and become a cowboy. “I’m gonna wallow in peace and quiet for the rest of my life!” Gehrig vows to the incredulous reporters who come to Grand Central Station to see him off. But when he arrives at the family homestead, he discovers some hoodlums have turned the local ranchers’ association into a protection racket. Gehrig teams with a local singing lawyer/cowboy/pugilist (Smith Ballew) to clean up the town. Yes, that’s right the Lou Gehrig Western is a musical, too.
On-Field Achievements: Until he was diagnosed with the crippling disease that now bears his name, Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games, a record that stood for more than half a century until Cal Ripken Jr. broke it in 1995. But the Iron Horse was more than some guy who just played every day he still holds the records for the most runs scored and driven in by a first baseman, as well as the record for the most career grand slams by any position player 23.
On-Screen Achievements: As you’d expect, Gehrig smashes the evil syndicate and does it in style. In one major fight scene set in a saloon, Gehrig, who performs a healthy portion of his own stunts, takes out the bad guys by hurling pool balls at their heads. Later, when a bunch of goons keep him from seeing his sister, who’s about to be coerced into signing a contract to join the syndicate, he gets her attention by finding a bunch of local kids, commandeering their bat and ball and busting the villain’s window with a well-placed liner.
Errors Committed: If only this movie were true, and if Gehrig, who passed away in 1941 at the age of 37, had been able to live out his retirement sitting on his sister’s porch in a rocking chair. In reality, his decline was brutally swift; When “Rawhide” was filmed in the winter before the 1938 season, he had no physical symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Within months of opening day, Gehrig’s illness had already begun to significantly affect his performance. For a player who prided himself on consistency, it was a devastating blow. Gehrig retired a little over a year later.
Discoveries: The final title card reads “The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are purely fictional. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” So, apparently, Lou Gehrig was an invention of screenwriters Daniel Jarrett and Jack Natteford working in concert with a cabal of journalists and members of the New York Yankees organization.
Substitutions: Gehrig spent most of his career in the shadow of Babe Ruth, but in the cinematic arena, he’s got the Babe beat. Ruth has had more features devoted to retelling his life story, but the one about Gehrig, 1942’s “The Pride of the Yankees” with Gary Cooper in the lead, remains more popular than all of them put together and routinely appears on lists of the greatest sports movies of all time. (Moviefone.com recently ranked it #13 in just such an article.)
Final Score: Gehrig may well be the greatest acting baseball player to play himself in history. The film takes him well out of his element allegedly, Gehrig never rode a horse before commencing filming on “Rawhide,” yet onscreen, old Biscuit Pants is a charismatic and charming presence and even a gifted physical comedian. In one scene, he draws laughs with the exaggeratedly confused way he rides his horse (“Awfully… rough… road!” he groans to his traveling partner). Throughout history, baseball players have routinely been treated like movie stars and they’ve often looked like movie stars. But when actually got in front of the camera, they rarely acted like movie stars. Gehrig comes the closest.
[Photo: “Rawhide” poster, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1938]