The Yorkville Kid Goes West

Prior to the 1938 season, Lou Gehrig starred in the western Rawhide. (via Pacific and Atlantic Photos, Inc.

Being a city boy doesn’t preclude one from becoming a cowboy. As Exhibit A, I offer William Bonney, a.k.a Billy the Kid, who was born in New York City but became a folk hero in New Mexico.

Billy the Kid, at least, was born at the right time (1859) to be an active participant in the Wild West. Subsequent city boys have had to content themselves with playing cowboys. Consider the case of Billy Crystal (rhymes with pistol).

Billy Crystal starred in City Slickers, a 1991 movie about city boys at a dude ranch.

Billy Crystal directed ’61, a 2001 HBO movie about Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle pursuing Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record.

Babe Ruth was a longtime teammate of Lou Gehrig.

Gehrig starred in Rawhide, a 1938 movie about a city boy who goes west to live on a ranch.

So we only needed three degrees of separation to connect Billy Crystal (who was born in 1948) to Lou Gehrig (who died in 1941). Both were New Yorkers who starred in movies, more than half a century apart, about city boys who cowboyed up. And that brings me to the subject of this article.

Gehrig was born in 1903 in Yorkville (on the upper east side of Manhattan), grew up in Washington Heights, played college ball at Columbia University, became a sports legend with the Yankees, and died at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. So his urban credentials are beyond question.

About all Gehrig has in common with the Old West is his nickname of the Iron Horse, the nickname for a locomotive and also the name of a classic silent western directed by John Ford. That film was released in 1924 when Gehrig’s major league career was just getting started. Gehrig had more in common with Grand Central Station, the Grand Concourse, and grand slams than the Grand Canyon, but Hollywood thought he had the makings of a cowboy star.

In January of 1938, Gehrig went west to star in Rawhide, for Sol Lesser, a B movie producer whose bread and butter was Tarzan movies. The result is a low-budget western that would have disappeared down the memory hole if not for Gehrig’s presence.

Aside from Gerhrig, there is nothing to distinguish Rawhide from the welter of B-movie westerns that unspooled regularly in movie theaters throughout the land in the pre-television days. Contrary to popular belief, Rawhide was not Gehrig’s only appearance in feature films. He also appeared as himself in Speedy, a 1928 Harold Lloyd comedy about the last horse-drawn streetcar in New York.

As described in a hyperbolic lobby card, Rawhide shows Gehrig “Battling against bullets!…The “Iron Man” of baseball becomes the west’s man of steel and helps your favorite singing cowboy ride the rustlers off the range!”

Curiously, Gehrig does not play an Old West cowpoke, he plays himself. The film starts with him bidding farewell to some New York reporters, asserting, “I’m through with baseball.” His sister (played by B-movie queen Evalyn Knapp) has a remote ranch called Rawhide, 100 miles from the nearest train station. Lou wants to “wallow in peace and quiet.” I can empathize.

Even if you’re not a big fan of westerns, you know what happens whenever an easygoing cowboy, who just wants to be left alone, comes up against some arrogant villains who just won’t leave him alone. In this film, the bad guys are the minions of the Ranchers Protective Association. Sounds benevolent enough, but it turns out that if you want to engage in ranching in their bailiwick, membership is de facto mandatory. The RPA started out as a benevolent undertaking, but the founder has taken sick, and the organization has been taken over by a bunch of guys in black hats (literally). Well, as Lou puts it, “This strong-arm stuff don’t go with me,” and so the battle is joined.

Catfish and Me
Reminisces of a meeting with an all-time great.

Predictably, after the requisite number of chases, stunts, and fistfights, the villains are vanquished, but just as Gehrig is about to enjoy his long-sought peace and quiet, he gets a telegram from the Yankees telling him his terms are acceptable and he should report to spring training immediately; apparently the whole ranching thing was just a ploy to pry more money loose from owner Jacob Ruppert. (Ruppert, by the way, was in poor health when the film was in production. Suffering from phlebitis, he was a shut-in during the 1938 season and died on January 13, 1939.)

Curiously, Gehrig was a holdout while he was filming the movie. He wanted $41,400 but settled for $39,000. The headlines during that offseason, however, were about his teammate, Joe DiMaggio, then only 24 years old.

On January 21, 1938 DiMaggio sought to supplant the veteran Gehrig as the highest-paid player in baseball. He justified his stance by asserting, “It’s too bad that Lou Gehrig is so underpaid.” Bold talk, but DiMaggio was up against the reserve clause so he caved, signing on April 20 for $25,000, which was nothing to sneeze at in those days; the sum made him the highest-paid third-year player ever. Still, you can’t blame a guy for trying to augment his income as Gehrig was doing by going Hollywood in the offseason.

It’s no surprise Rawhide didn’t exactly rise to the level of must-see cinema. Mercifully, the whole shebang only lasts about an hour. As you might expect, Gehrig does have a chance to show off his baseball prowess. He gets to take out a window with one swing of the bat (curiously, Gary Cooper would do the same thing four years later when he played Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees). Even more impressive is a saloon brawl in which Gehrig hurls billiard balls, knocking out one bad guy after another in rapid succession. Lou was better known for his offensive exploits, but this scene leads one to suspect he was probably a whiz at turning the 3-6-3 double play.

As far as the acting goes, the best that can be said of Gehrig is that he doesn’t embarrass himself. Given the flimsy script, that isn’t damning with faint praise, for him or anyone else in the cast.

The other actors are regular denizens of the 1930s B-movie ghetto, so contemporary name recognition is a problem. The one possible exception is the role of Butch, played by Dick Curtis, a classic “Hey, it’s whatzisname?” character actor. Though he died at age 51, he had 230 movie credits, so you might have seen him before. 1938 marked a turning point in his career, as he broadened his range by adding Three Stooges shorts to his resume. In Rawhide, he gets to deliver inspired lines of dialogue like “I’m going to get that guy Gehrig if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

Acting is one thing; singing is another. The 1930s was the era of the singing cowboy. Even John Wayne wasn’t immune to that trend. (Don’t miss his portrayal of Singin’ Sandy in Riders of Destiny in 1933.) The warbler in Rawhide is Smith Ballew, who plays a singing cowboy, but with a twist. He’s not just a singing cowboy, he’s a singing cowboy lawyer. Ballew, Texas-born and bred, was also a big-band vocalist. In “A Cowboy’s Life,” one of the four songs in the movie, Gehrig chips in, but the voice is not his but that of Buddy Clark, a popular crooner of the era. The lyrics of Gehrig’s lip-synch sequence are:

They said a cowboy had his fun so I took my bats,
I traded them for riding boots and seven-gallon hats.
I played the major leagues for years with versatility.
I seldom missed a fly but now the flies chase me.

Curiously, two of the film’s songs, “When a Cowboy Goes to Town” and “Drifting” were written by Albert Von Tilzer, who wrote the music for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Though Gehrig was a novice actor, he was the most recognizable name in the cast. Notably, his film credit reads “by arrangement with Christy Walsh.” You might not recognize this name, but the former ghostwriter is often considered the first sports agent. In the heyday of the reserve clause, he could not negotiate players’ contracts, but he did arrange for collateral income via advertising testimonials, public appearances, and barnstorming tours. In addition to Gehrig, he represented Ruth, Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean, Rogers Hornsby, John McGraw, and Walter Johnson.

Rawhide was filmed in January 1938 and premiered in March in St. Petersburg, Florida, while the Yankees were there for spring training. 20th Century Fox released it to theaters on April 8, 1938, 10 days before the Yanks’ season opener at Fenway Park.

Gehrig had a poor spring training, and his 1938 season was noticeably down given the high standards of his career. Since his consecutive-game streak was still in effect, he led the league in games played (157), but his batting average of .295 was the only sub-.300 year he had since he hit for the same average in his rookie year of 1925. His home run total of 29 was his lowest since 1928, and his RBI count of 114 was his lowest since 1926. Of course, he was 35 years old, so the Yankees probably figured it was just old age creeping up on him. Given his elevated talent level, Gehrig on a downward career path was still better than almost anybody else in the full bloom of youth. He was still on the AL All-Star squad, as he had been every year since the initial contest in 1933.

In retrospect, Rawhide provides an intriguing glimpse of Gehrig just before his downfall. Whether he is in the last stages of vigorous health or the early stages of ALS, the movie is a dividing line. When we view Rawhide today, we are well aware of Lou Gehrig’s fate. Unlike movie audiences in 1938, we know the last roundup is just around the bend.

The film has been studied by doctors, but no consensus exists as to whether Gehrig exhibits early signs of ALS. To my untutored eye, he looks to be in the peak of health. On the other hand, one specialist, Edward J. Kasarkis, a University of Kentucky neurologist, has said he discerned some early warning signs.

At the conclusion of filming, Gehrig was taken with the experience and planned to make more movies. Given the beaming countenance he sports in almost every scene, it appears he has taken the dictum “Smile when you say that” (dating back to The Virginian, a 1902 novel by Owen Wister) seriously. In fact, when Gehrig returned from his western adventure, he brought back a Colt .38 revolver. Being a law-abiding sort, he applied for a permit.

Gehrig as a western hero may have been (and may still be) pretty hard to swallow for some viewers. In fact, it’s almost as hard to swallow as an actor who grew up on a Montana ranch, made a name for himself as a cowboy star, and then took on a starring role as a famous ballplayer. Yet that describes Cooper, who portrayed Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees.

Is the Westerner (Cooper also starred in a big-budget western of the same name in 1940) restricted to certain areas of North America? Fort Worth city-father Amon Carter thought his hometown was Where the West Begins. Other civic boosters chose different geographic landmarks.

As cowboy poet Arthur Chapman put it:

Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger,
Out where the smile dwells a little longer,
That’s where the west begins.

So whether you grew up in a world of box canyons or concrete canyons, whether you’re a fan of Gary Cooper or Lou Gehrig, the west is primarily a state of mind.

Even if you think it begins west of the Mississippi – or the Hudson – River.

References & Resources

  • Baseball Almanac
  • Baseball-Reference
  • IMDB
  • Wikipedia
  • “DiMaggio “Signs!” Reports Saturday” by Jack Mahon, New York Daily News, April 21, 1938
  • The Baseball Timeline by Burt Solomon, DK Publishing (New York, 2001)
  • The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy, HarperCollins (New York, 2018)
  • Luckiest Man: the Life and Death of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig, Simon & Schuster (New York, 2005)

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.

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