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Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees

On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig delivered one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century from home plate of Yankee Stadium. It was the day he retired from baseball. Three years later, a movie dedicated to Gehrig, titled Pride of the Yankees, contained a mimic speech delivered by Gary Cooper, who played Gehrig. Both speeches were dramatic and haunting, but how do the details of the speech compare?

The real speech:

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?

Sure I'm lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift - that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies - that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter - that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body - it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed - that's the finest I know.

So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.

The Hollywood version:

I have been walking onto ball fields for sixteen years, and I've never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. I have had the great honor to have played with these great veteran ballplayers on my left - Murderers Row, our championship team of 1927. I have had the further honor of living with and playing with these men on my right - the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees of today.

I have been given fame and undeserved praise by the boys up there behind the wire in the press box, my friends, the sportswriters. I have worked under the two greatest mangers of all time, Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy.

I have a mother and father who fought to give me health and a solid background in my youth. 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 I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Clearly the screenwriters, Jo Swerling and Herman J. Mankiewicz, wanted the Hollywood version to be as similar to the real thing as possible. They were good in tying the two orations with strong foundation cords.

For instance, neither speech mentions fellow players' names. All the names Gehrig says belong to people in authority positions - managers, Yankees owner. Both equate his wife, Eleanor, with courage. And, most important by many counts, both get at the essential core of Gehrig's meaning, Don't feel sorry for me, I still have a lot going for me and I will not complain about my life.

The movie makers even went so far as to make sure the verbalized Hollywood version had the PA system echoes like the real speech did.

As with all things Hollywood, the speech Cooper delivers contains many elements of fiction. As a result, there are more differences than similarities, and some of these differences are interesting.

Only the real speech mentions a mother-in-law, and in a jaunty sort of way. It gives the audience a more rounded look at Gehrig's married life, as well as hints at his unflappable sense of humor. The mother-in-law reference was cut by Hollywood, probably, because the Mrs. never appeared in the movie; the Mr. did, though.

The groundskeepers and clubhouse attendants were thanked in the real speech. Gehrig was very respectful to "the little people" throughout his career, and they thanked him by presenting him with gifts and well-wishes. In the fabricated speech, the sportswriters were thanked. On the surface that seems a little inappropriate to ignore the little people, but in the movie, it was a sportswriter that stuck up for Gehrig from the time he was a naive, goofball rookie. So, in harmony with the rest of the film, the screenwriters substituted "my friends, the sportswriters" in lieu of groundskeepers, et al.

Even Gehrig's longtime nemesis, the New York Giants, were given props in his speech, because thats the kind of man Gehrig was, respectful. In the movie Cooper motions to his left and says "Murderers Row" then motions to his right and says "Bronx Bombers." Again, an appropriate replacement considering the Giants-Gehrig relationship was never explored in the movie.

The "luckiest man" line appears at opposites ends of the speeches, the real speech housing the line at the beginning and the fake housing it at the end. It's easy to understand why the screenwriters chose this to be so. The line packs a lot of punch; it is the most-often recited line of the entire speech. But perhaps it's the most-often recited line because the movie let it linger as the last words Cooper utters. While the line undoubtedly oozes drama, the real last line is nearly as dramatic: "I have an awful lot to live for." Live for. Ok, so maybe the line wasn't so dramatic on that day it was first said, but in retrospect, it is quite tear-welling.

Did Swerling and Mankiewicz do justice to Gehrig's heartfelt goodbye serenade? In the years after the Pride of Yankees release, Cooper entertained homesick, hard-shelled GIs fighting World War II by reciting his "luckiest man" speech. According to legend the GIs were left in tears. Kudos!, Swerling and Mankiewicz.

Written by S. Kaden, 2002