When sport meets art

At the height of World War II in the South Pacific, actor Gary Cooper joined a group of other performers on a USO tour to entertain the troops.

The lanky, laconic Oscar winner — best-known for playing quiet, dignified heroes, particularly in Westerns — gamely delivered lines from comedian and pal Jack Benny’s scripts, sang the popular “Pistol Packin’ Mama” and romanced Phyllis Brooks onstage. Halfway through one show, however, a soldier shouted out a request closer to Cooper’s heart — Lou Gehrig’s farewell address, which “Coop” had delivered with such simple poignance as the dying first baseman in “The Pride of the Yankees.”

Cooper retreated from the stage for a moment, and, amid a storm, wrote down what he remembered from the 1942 movie’s script. He then returned to deliver the speech, which remained in the 24,000-mile tour.

“(The soldiers) identified with Gehrig dying young when they might die the next day,” Richard Sandomir says.

The former New York Times sportswriter, who now writes obituaries for the paper, returned to his roots nonetheless for the juicy new book “The Pride of the Yankees:  Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic” (Hachette Books, 293 pages, $27). In it, he describes “Pride” as “the first great sports film. But it is part of a tradition of sports in the arts that stretches back to the prehistoric cave paintings of wrestling, running and swimming in what is now France, Japan, Libya and Mongolia. Wrestlers appear on Sumerian stone slabs, while a variety of sports were depicted in ancient Egypt. 

It was the ancient Greeks, of course, with their fascination for the body — and the male body in particular — who captured the taut beauty of the perfected athletic form in such works as Polyclitus’ Diadoumenos and Myron’s Discobolus and, later, the price of that athleticism in more realistic, Hellenistic works like “Boxer at Rest.” It’s the same fascination you’ll find in Leroy Neiman’s dynamically colored Modern paintings and prints of such greats as Muhammad Ali, Sandy Koufax and Björn Borg.

For writers and filmmakers, whose works are temporal narratives, sports are often less about the actual athletic endeavors than they are about their metaphoric potential.  “Pride” producer Samuel Goldwyn — a Polish immigrant who didn’t know baseball from cricket — wasn’t interested in making a baseball movie, Sandomir says. He was interested in the fatal love story of Gehrig, a man dying of ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, who happened to be a ballplayer, and his feisty but supportive wife, Eleanor (Teresa Wright).

Similarly, in Neil LaBute’s new play “Break Point” — bowing Aug. 6 as part of Throughline Artists’ “Summer Shorts 2017” in Manhattan — the meeting of two world-class tennis players on the eve of their semifinal match at the French Open becomes the vehicle for the themes of male rivalry, dominance, brutality and fragility that haunt his works. Would two top players actually have such a meeting instead of resting and keeping their distance from each other? Probably not, but then that’s the beauty of the arts — and sports in the arts:  They take something that is as uncertain as life itself and organize it in such a way that you can consider and digest it.

Sandomir’s book plumbs how fiction reinvents fact, how art reinvents sport. “Something I didn’t put in the book … was that by contract (writer) Paul Gallico had to tell Goldwyn how much of the script was truthful.”

About two-thirds of it was either Eleanor Gehrig’s recollections or made-up scenarios. That includes the gracious speech that Gehrig, a onetime New Rochelle and Larchmont resident, delivered on July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium in which he proclaimed himself, despite a “bad break,” “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Though “we don’t have the full newsreel version to compare it to,” Sandomir says, we know that “the luckiest man” sentiment came at the beginning of Gehrig’s speech. In the movie, it comes at the end where it packs an emotional punch. By the time those American servicemen experienced it — filtered through Eleanor Gehrig’s reminiscences, Goldwyn’s directives, Gallico’s writing and Cooper’s embodiment — they were encountering not Gehrig himself but the essence and psychological truth of a wartime hero who had become just as much Cooper. 

“Back in 1942, there was no TV, no DVD, no internet where you could say, ‘Look how bad Gary Cooper is playing baseball,’” says Sandomir, who covered sports media and business for The Times. (One canard Sandomir’s book lays to rest:  That the film negative was flopped to make the right-handed Cooper appear as if he were hitting left-handed like Gehrig. A graceful actor who had been a stuntman, Cooper learned to approximate left-handed hitting.)

Today, the digital age demands verisimilitude, however. For the new Gehrig movie, based on the “Luckiest Man” biography by former Monsey resident Jonathan Eig, Sandomir says Gehrig will undoubtedly be played by a more athletic actor who approaches the Yank’s powerful muscularity. It will also be interesting to see how “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” director Jay Russell and screenwriter Dan Kay depict Gehrig’s ALS, Sandomir adds. The 1942 movie touched on it obliquely, whereas the TV-movie “A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story,” based on Eleanor’s book “My Luke and I,” did show Edward Herrmann’s Gehrig on his deathbed.

“I don’t think we want to see Gehrig stumbling around,” Sandomir says.

No, despite the “authenticity” of the internet age, we want to see a ballplayer defy bribery and a bullet traveling over time to hit the home run that wins the pennant (“The Natural”). We want to see the tennis player win the US Open in time to unmask a murderer (“Strangers on a Train”). 

We want a lanky, right-handed Westerner, playing a muscular, left-handed Easterner, to tell us that despite the ravages of a terrifying illness, he is still the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

For such is the alchemy of art.

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