Of all the players in baseball history, none possessed as much talent and humility as Lou Gehrig. His accomplishments on the field made him an authentic American hero, and his tragic early death made him a legend.
Gehrig’s later glory came from humble beginnings. He was born on June 19, 1903 in New York City. The son of German immigrants, Gehrig was the only one of four children to survive. His mother, Christina, worked tirelessly, cooking, cleaning houses, and taking in laundry to make ends meet. His father, Heinrich, often had trouble finding work and had poor health.
From Columbia to Yankee Stadium
Christina was adamant that Gehrig receive a good education so, in 1921, he went to Columbia on a football scholarship to pursue a degree in engineering. Before his first semester began, New York Giants manager John McGraw advised him to play summer professional baseball under an assumed name, Henry Lewis. “Everyone does it,” McGraw explained, even though the illegal ball playing could have jeopardized Gehrig’s collegiate sports career. Gehrig was discovered after playing a dozen games for Hartford in the Eastern League. As a result, he was banned from intercollegiate sports during his freshman year.
Gehrig returned to sports as a fullback at Columbia during the 1922 football season, and then pitched and played first base for the Columbia Nine in 1923. When baseball scout Paul Krichell saw the Columbia baseball team play, Gehrig’s hitting skills impressed him so much that he signed Gehrig to the Yankees in 1923 with a $1,500 bonus. Gehrig left Columbia and returned to the Hartford team, where he hit .304 that season. When he was called up to the majors in September, he hit .423 in 26 at-bats.
Yankee manager Miller Huggins petitioned McGraw to permit Gehrig to replace the ailing Wally Pipp on the Yanks’ roster for the World Series. McGraw, always looking for an edge, exercised his prerogative and refused. The Yankees won the World Series that year, anyway. After a full season at Hartford, where Gehrig hit .369, he became a Yankee for good in 1925. Once he replaced Wally Pipp at first base, Gehrig didn’t leave the playing field for over 13 years.
“Iron Horse” and the 2,130-game streak
Gehrig’s consecutive game streak of 2,130 games (a record that stood until Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it in 1995) did not come easily. He played well every day despite a broken thumb, a broken toe, and back spasms. Later in his career, Gehrig’s hands were X-rayed, and doctors were able to spot 17 different fractures that had “healed” while Gehrig continued to play. Despite having pain from lumbago one day, he was listed as the shortstop and leadoff hitter. He singled and was promptly replaced but kept the streak intact. His endurance and strength earned him the nickname “Iron Horse.”
After batting .295 in 1925, the next year Gehrig hit .313 and led the league with 20 triples. This was the first of 12 consecutive years he would top .300. The Yankees won the pennant and Gehrig hit .348 in the World Series, but the Yankees lost to Rogers Hornsby’s Cardinals in seven games.
Ruth and Gehrig began to dominate the baseball headlines in 1927 in a way two players had never done before. That year, Ruth hit 60 homers, breaking his old record of 59, and Gehrig clouted 47, more than anyone other than Ruth had ever hit. As late as August 10th, Gehrig had more homers than the Babe, but Ruth’s closing kick was spectacular. Together, they out-homered every team in baseball except one.
The Yankees chased away all competition, winning the flag by 19 games over the A’s and sweeping the Pirates in the World Series. Ruth was not eligible for the Most Valuable Player Award, because he had won it before, so it went to Gehrig. In 1928, the pair tied for the RBI lead with 142 and put on quite a show in the World Series. Despite being walked six times, Gehrig hit .545.
Ruth’s dominance as a power hitter was slipping, and Gehrig began to take his place. On June 3, 1932, Gehrig became the first American Leaguer to hit four home runs in a game. After Gehrig’s third homer to right field in a game against Philadelphia, an irritated Connie Mack removed pitcher George Earnshaw and demanded that Earnshaw stay with him to watch relief pitcher Roy Mahaffey pitch to Gehrig. Gehrig’s fourth homer was to left field and only a great catch by Al Simmons kept Gehrig from hitting his fifth homer of the day.
The Yankees missed the postseason three years in a row (1933-1935). During an off-season barnstorming trip to Japan, the civil relationship between the two slugging stars boiled over, apparently over a comment that Gehrig’s mother had made about how Ruth’s daughter dressed. Ruth got word to Gehrig that he never wanted to speak to him off the field again, and the two never traded words until “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” six years later.
Thriving in the Shadow of the Babe
Gehrig had spent his whole career in New York, the nation’s media capital. But it seemed that another teammate always got more headline attention. First it was Babe Ruth, then later Joe DiMaggio. When historian Fred Lieb asked Gehrig about playing in Ruth’s shadow, Gehrig’s answer was true to form: “It’s a pretty big shadow. It gives me lots of room to spread myself.”
And spread himself he did. His lifetime batting average was .340, the 15th all-time highest, and he amassed more than 400 total bases on five occasions. Only 13 men have achieved that level of power in a season. Ruth did it twice, and Chuck Klein did it three times. Gehrig is one of only seven players with more than 100 extra-base hits in one season, and only he and Klein accomplished that feat twice.
During his career, Gehrig averaged 147 RBIs a season. No other player was to reach the 147 mark in a single season until George Foster did it in 1977. And, as historian Bill Curran points out, Gehrig accomplished it “while batting immediately behind two of history’s greatest base-cleaners, Ruth and DiMaggio.” Gehrig’s 184 RBIs in 1931 remains the highest single season total in American League history.
Gehrig won the Triple Crown in 1934, with a .363 average, 49 homers and 165 RBI and was chosen Most Valuable Player again in 1936. Despite his towering size, he stole home 15 times in his career. He batted .361 in 34 World Series games with 10 homers, eight doubles and 35 RBIs. He also holds the record for career grand slams at 23. He hit 73 three-run homers and 166 two-run shots, giving him the highest average of RBI per homer of any player with more than 300 home runs.
The Yankees recaptured the title in 1936. For the next two years, DiMaggio and Gehrig would dominate the league the way Gehrig and Ruth had, and the Yankees began a four-season dynasty that included winning four World Series and losing only three games out of 19. In 1936, Gehrig led the league in home runs and runs scored. The next year, DiMaggio did the same.
Lou Gehrig’s Disease
In 1938, Gehrig fell below .300 for the first time since 1925 and it was clear that there was something wrong. He lacked his usual strength. Pitches he would have hit for home runs were only flyouts. Doctors diagnosed a gallbladder problem first, and they put him on a bland diet, which only made him weaker. Teammate Wes Ferrell noticed that on the golf course, instead of wearing golf cleats, Gehrig was wearing tennis shoes and sliding his feet along the ground. Ferrell was frightened. When asked if he would remove Gehrig from the lineup, manager Joe McCarthy said, “That’s Lou’s decision.”
Gehrig played the first eight games of the 1939 season, but he managed only four hits. On a ball hit back to pitcher Johnny Murphy, Gehrig had trouble getting to first in time for the throw. When he returned to the dugout, his teammates complimented him on the “good play.” Gehrig knew when his fellow Yankees had to congratulate him for stumbling into an average catch it was time to leave. He took himself out of the game. On May 2, 1939, as Yankee captain, he took the lineup card to the umpires, as usual. But his name was not on the roster. Babe Dahlgren was stationed at first. The game announcer intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Gehrig’s consecutive streak of 2,130 games played has ended.”
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed Gehrig with a very rare form of degenerative disease: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is now called Lou Gehrig’s disease. There was no chance he would ever play baseball again.
“…the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
New York sportswriter Paul Gallico suggested the team have a recognition day to honor Gehrig on July 4, 1939. There were more than 62,000 fans in attendance as Gehrig stood on the field at Yankee Stadium with the 1927 and 1939 Yankees. He fought back tears of overwhelming emotion and began to speak his immortal words of thanks, calling himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” It was one of the most poignant and emotional moments in the history of American sports, and there was not a dry eye in Yankee Stadium. At the close of Gehrig’s speech, Babe Ruth walked up, put his arm around his former teammate and spoke in his ear the first words they had shared since 1934.
Gehrig was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame that December. Although his career in baseball was over and his health was on a steady decline, Gehrig began work in the community. Mayor Fiorelli LaGuardia asked him to join the Parole Board, where he could help troubled youths. Gehrig was sworn in for a 10-year term in June 1940. His health continued to fail, however, and he had to take a leave of absence. Eleanor, Gehrig’s wife of eight years, remained by his side as his health deteriorated.
On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig succumbed to ALS and the country mourned. Eleanor received over 1,500 notes and telegrams of condolence at their home in Riverdale, New York. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt even sent her flowers. Gehrig was cremated and his ashes were buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
Lou Gehrig is remembered as one of the most talented and phenomenal baseball players of all time. More than that, however, he is remembered for his kind heart and winning attitude. When actor Edward Hermann was hired to play Gehrig in a TV movie, at first he had trouble capturing the essence of the reserved, quiet Gehrig. “What made it so tough is I could find no ‘key’ to his character. There was no strangeness, nothing spectacular about him. As Eleanor Gehrig told me, he was just a square, honest guy.”
Sportswriter Jim Murray once described the tall, strong Gehrig as a “Gibraltar in cleats.” Gehrig’s character lay somewhere between the average and the mythic. He was a dedicated athlete, a caring son and husband, an honest man and an American hero.