Even if you’re not a baseball fan – or a classic movie fan – you know this line:
Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
You can just hear it, can’t you, echoing over the stadium PA system.
The film follows Gehrig’s life from a child of working-class immigrants to his career as a professional ball player.
In the film, Gehrig is played by Gary Cooper who looks the part of a professional ball player. We (as in, yours truly) quite like Cooper as the straight-laced, gum chewing Gehrig.
Teresa Wright plays Gehrig’s wife, a smart woman with just enough sass to keep Gehrig humble. She’s courageous and resourceful, but not Made Of Stone. When Cooper delivers the speech about being the Luckiest Man on Earth, her reaction breaks your heart.
Because the Luckiest Man line is from the saddest scene of any baseball movie we’ve seen.
The entire movie is set up for that line. The script takes pains to endear Gehrig to us: as a youth, he’s awkward around girls, and his classmates mercilessly tease him. He’s also afraid tell his mother he quit college to play for the Yankees.
But life improves. Gehrig meets the woman he will marry, and his baseball career is red hot. He plays two thousand consecutive games, earning the nickname “The Iron Horse”. Still, he remains a down-to-earth fellow, the kind of guy who reluctantly promises a hospitalized kid he’ll hit two home runs during the next game – and does.
It starts with a loss of balance and a slowness of movement. He’s unable to hold the bat. After 14 years and 2,130 games, he can no longer hit the ball.
Cooper is superb as a man who realizes the particular ball game he’s playing will be his last. He’s about to go to bat, when he suddenly tells the coach to send someone else. “I can’t make it any more,” he says.
Cooper smiles at the replacement batter and pats him on the arm. But as he walks into the dugout, his optimism collapses. The camera isolates Cooper on the bench; his solitary image tells us he knows he’s Finished.
After a battery of medical tests, Gehrig’s condition turns out to be a terminal disease: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
Or, as it’s more commonly known, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In the film, the Luckiest Man line is from Gehrig’s last public appearance at Yankee stadium. It is July 4, 1939, and Gehrig, in uniform, walks to the microphones on the infield to give a farewell speech to over 60,000 fans.
Gehrig is not just saying goodbye to the game or the fans. He’s also saying goodbye to life. Two years later he would be dead.
Here are excerpts from the film version of his speech:
“I have been walking on ball fields for 16 years and I’ve never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans…. I have been given fame and undeserved praise by the boys up there in the press box…. I have worked under the two greatest managers of all time…. I have a wife, a companion for life who has shown me more courage than I ever knew…. People all say that I’ve had a bad break. But today, today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Cooper turns to leave the infield, and is met with resounding cheers and applause. As he walks unsteadily down the stairs to the dugout, we hear the umpire shout, “Play ball!”
The Pride of the Yankees: starring Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Babe Ruth. Directed by Sam Wood. Written by Jo Swerling & Herman J. Mankiewicz. Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1943, B&W, 128 mins.
This is part of the The 2nd Annual Classic Quotes Blogathon hosted by The Flapper Dame.