Saturday, February 09, 2013

Reversing Course on Reports About a Classic

Gary Cooper portrayed the left-handed slugger
Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees."

February 8, 2013
By Richard Sandomir
New York Times

Before the release of "The Pride of the Yankees," the 1942 biographical film about Lou Gehrig, there were reports that movie magic had been needed to solve a critical problem: making Gary Cooper, a right-handed movie star who was definitely not a ballplayer, into a credible version of the left-handed Gehrig, a Hall of Fame slugger with a .340 career batting average.

Lefty O'Doul, a former major leaguer, had been hired to convert Cooper into someone who could at least pretend he was a left-handed hitter and first baseman. But just days before the film opened, Shirley Povich, a Washington Post columnist, called reports that O'Doul had succeeded in his work "a heap of hokum." Instead, he wrote, "everything you see Cooper doing left-handed in the picture, he's actually doing right-handed."

The effect was achieved, he said, through trickery. Cooper would hit, catch and throw right-handed, but the film would be reversed to make it look as if he were a left-hander. To perpetuate the illusion, Cooper would run to third base on a hit, not first, and would station himself at third instead of first. The letters across the chest of his Yankees uniform would be sewn backward.

Everything, Povich said, "worked out beautifully."

Now, more than 70 years later, one researcher believes that reports by Povich and others about the cinematic sleight of hand were largely untrue but that a small amount of flipping probably took place. The researcher said that O'Doul's tutelage probably enabled Cooper, who was 40 when the film was made, to bat and catch left-handed with passable skill, although throwing was another matter.

"O'Doul knew a lot about teaching baseball," said the researcher, Tom Shieber, a senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "You can't sell Cooper short. I heard he wasn't much of an athlete, but if you look at his swing, it had a funny loop to it, but it wasn't bad."

Shieber began analyzing the film last month and ended up spelling out his conclusions in a lengthy article early this week on his personal blog,

As he pored over the film's frames, Shieber began to see how difficult it would have been for the director Sam Wood and the film's technicians to execute all the changes needed on the field for the film to be successfully reversed.

All the players in the shot with Cooper would have had to have the letters on their jerseys sewn backward to be read correctly when the film was flipped.

If Cooper wore a glove on the opposite hand, the other infielders would have had to do so, too. And if the first-base running lane was erased, an exact replica would have had to be drawn down third base.

Too many dominoes had to fall for the trickery to be worth the filmmakers' trouble, Shieber said. "Like a complicated conspiracy theory, every aspect of the plan would have to have been carefully planned out and perfectly executed," he wrote.

With an expertise in assessing the authenticity of historic uniforms, Shieber concluded that Cooper's Columbia University jersey in the movie "buttons together such that the left portion of the shirt placket is on top of the right," which is common for men's shirts. The same holds true of the way Cooper's Yankee jersey buttoned.

Shieber even compared the fly of Cooper and Gehrig's road uniform pants: they lay the same way, left side over right. If Cooper's fly followed the correct pattern, Shieber said, the film was not flipped.

Another clue in Shieber's research was the bat in Gehrig's hands: the "Powerized" logo above the Louisville Slugger brand name was angled correctly. Does anyone believe, he asked, that the filmmakers ordered backward-branded bats for the film?

"Why go to all that trouble?" he said.

Unlike Kevin Costner, who played well in "Bull Durham," Cooper was a novice. But "Pride of the Yankees" relied far less, relatively, on his athleticism than on the love story between Cooper and Teresa Wright, who portrayed Gehrig's wife, Eleanor.

O'Doul built Cooper's swing by having him chop trees, but he told Cooper, "You throw a ball like an old woman tossing a hot biscuit." Years later, Cooper wrote that after "some painful weeks, he got my arm to work in a reasonable duplicate of Gehrig's throwing."

As for the flipping that probably did occur, Shieber said he noticed that the bandage that was seen on Cooper's left hand while throwing looked quite similar to a bandage on his right hand as he adjusted his cap, apparent evidence that that part of the film was flipped. In another sequence, Shieber saw that Cooper's jersey buttoned the wrong way — right placket over left — an indication of more flipping.

Shieber acknowledged that more flipping may have been left on the cutting room floor or that the filmmakers may have taken a shot at reversing all of Cooper's playing sequences before it "got too unruly."

Cooper's own words, in a 1956 Saturday Evening Post article, dispute Shieber's findings. He wrote that he knew the difficulties of playing the left-handed Gehrig but that a solution had been found.

"To remedy this in close-ups," he wrote, "the letters on my uniform were reversed as in mirror writing, and the film was processed with the back side to the front. My right hand thus appeared to be my left."

Was Cooper exaggerating?

Maria Cooper Janis, Cooper's daughter, backs her father. "My mother told me that he tried like the dickens to do it as a lefty," she said by phone. "But he couldn't."

Shieber's conclusion, though, may create some renewed, and welcome, curiosity about a movie now 71 years old.

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