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Gehrig, (Henry) Lou(is)

GEHRIG, (Henry) Lou(is)

(b. 19 June 1903 in New York City; d. 2 June 1941 in New York City), baseball player who, as a key member of the New York Yankee teams of the 1920s and 1930s, ranks among the greatest first basemen of all time.

Gehrig was born Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig to a German immigrant family in the Yorkville neighborhood of New York City. His three siblings all died in infancy, so he was raised as an only child in a household where his Danishborn mother, Christina Fack, earned the only reliable salary. There is an ongoing dispute as to the character and habits of his father, Heinrich Gehrig, a day laborer. Some accounts portray Heinrich as a man prone to drinking bouts and a failure at finding steady employment. However, Heinrich was defended by Lou Gehrig's wife, Eleanor, who claimed the experience of her father-in-law was much more typical than the Horatio Alger immigrant tales that dogged the public imagination. She also offered an atypical evaluation of his drinking habits, pointing out that taverns were part of respectable socializing in German culture and that Heinrich was more interested in companionship than intoxication in his tavern visits.

What is certain is that Gehrig developed an intense work ethic and a belief that success in sports was the key to his acceptance in American society. He worked hard to overcome the anti-German prejudice he encountered during World War I and starred on both the football and baseball teams at Manhattan's High School of Commerce. Over the objections of his mother, he traveled to Chicago to play in a game against their top school team. He hit a game-winning grand slam and received his first mention in newspapers.

In his senior year, Gehrig was recruited to play football at Columbia University, where his mother worked as a housekeeper for a fraternity. The summer before college, he played twelve games for the Hartford, Connecticut, farm team of the New York Giants, using the name Lou Lewis, as college athletes are forbidden from playing professional sports. College authorities discovered what Gehrig had done, and he was ruled ineligible for football for one year and lost two years of baseball eligibility.

Gehrig began his college football career playing running back and defensive end on a team that compiled a 4–4 record. His one year of college baseball produced more impressive results. Yankee scout Paul Krichell signed him for a $1,500 bonus, and Gehrig spent 1923 and 1924 playing in the minors with brief stints with the Yankees.

In both college and his early baseball years, Gehrig was perceived as aloof. Gehrig in turn resented the social snobbery he encountered at Columbia and the difficulty of gaining acceptance from the veterans of the Yankee team. A poignant example of the latter occurred when the Yankees headed to New Orleans for spring training in 1925. He was spotted by a coach glumly walking the streets in search of a moonlighting job, since his first paycheck would not be issued until the regular season began. The coach got Gehrig to request a salary advance and arranged for him to move in with three teammates to reduce his expenses. The move helped, but his teammates viewed Gehrig as unsociable for not joining the team for carousing that he could ill afford.

On 1 June 1925 Yankee first baseman Wally Pipp left a game complaining of a headache. Gehrig stepped in, and he did not relinquish that position for 2,130 games. Nicknamed the "Iron Horse" for his resilience, he played through many injuries, including at least seventeen wrist, hand, and finger fractures. Gehrig, who hit for both average and power, would have been the marquee player on any team except the Yankees, where he played his early years in the shadow of Babe Ruth and his later years in that of Joe DiMaggio.

Gehrig played at a time when he was compared with Hall of Fame first basemen such as Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg, but his career statistics are so impressive their recitation can be almost numbing. His career total of 493 home runs and lifetime .340 batting average are a tribute to his rare combination of power and a selective eye. In seven seasons he was able to drive in 150 runs or more. In a game against Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics in 1932, Gehrig hit four consecutive home runs, setting an American League single-game record. He was chosen as the Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1927, 1931, 1934, and 1936, and he started at first base in the annual All-Star game from 1933, the first year the contest was held, until his final full season in 1938. In addition to his offensive contributions, Gehrig compiled a .991 fielding percentage that belied the common perception that he lacked agility. Gehrig was tall and stocky and frequently portrayed as a lumbering power hitter.

Gehrig was a complete player on the field, but his public image was hampered by his reticent manner and his preference for keeping his life private off the field. Detroit Tiger manager Mickey Cochrane once quipped that Gehrig said "Hello" on opening day, "Goodbye" on closing day, and very little in between. Even his marriage to the vivacious Eleanor Grace Twitchell in 1933 resulted in her settling down instead of Gehrig becoming more gregarious.

One source of frequent speculation was the rumor of a personality clash between Babe Ruth and Gehrig. Certainly the two teammates were very different in their approach to baseball, and life in general. Gehrig was quiet, workman-like, and uneasy in the spotlight. Ruth took his talent for granted, led a frantic social life, and loved public attention. Yet there is very little evidence that these differences caused friction between the two.

A rift was created, but it started at the dinner table, not the ballpark. In 1934 Ruth and his daughter were having dinner at the house of Gehrig's parents. Christina Gehrig, a woman renowned for her sharp tongue, criticized the way Ruth's beloved daughter was dressed. Reportedly the Babe grew furious, and as a result refused to speak to his team-mate until his retirement ceremony in 1939. The insult to his child was likely the spark that set afire Ruth's smoldering resentment that Gehrig was reaching the prime of his career at a time when his own skills had started to deteriorate. It is a testimony to the stubbornness and pride of both men that they remained silent so long.

Evaluating the career of Gehrig is problematic. He played in an era with just sixteen teams, when hitters with a .300 lifetime batting average wound up sitting on the bench, and hit against pitching staffs untouched by the ravages of expansion, so it is difficult to compare his career with those of players after 1962. Certainly his consistency was outstanding. Gehrig's balanced offensive and defensive contributions are equally exceptional. The fact that he compiled such impressive RBI totals batting behind Babe Ruth during much of his career is perhaps his most impressive career statistic.

But more impressive than any individual statistic is Gehrig's key position in the legendary Yankee dynasty. From Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson, the Yankees boasted many of the dominant ballplayers over a fifty-year span. As a result, the team moved beyond regional popularity to develop a national following.

Sadly, Gehrig is as well known for the tragic illness that led to his early death as he is for his athletic achievements. During 1938 he began to experience bouts of dizziness and difficulty moving his legs. Repeated medical examinations were inconclusive, so he finally traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, after playing his last game on 30 April 1939. Doctors diagnosed Gehrig with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neuromuscular disease that is incurable. The Yankees responded by declaring 4 July 1939 "Lou Gehrig Day." At his ceremony, tired but proud, Gehrig said the legendary words that proved the depth of his quiet courage: "Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Later that year Gehrig accepted an honorary position with the New York City Parole Commission. He did this as he had played baseball—quietly, with no wish for publicity. His one public campaign was his battle with the New York tabloids, which exploited the medical ignorance of the time by claiming ALS was contagious and that Gehrig had infected his teammates. Only his close circle of friends realized how ill he was, and the nation was shocked to hear of his death in 1941. He is buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

In an era when flamboyance counted, Gehrig's quiet approach kept him from the accolades he deserved. His record of 2,130 straight games was broken by Cal Ripken, Jr., in 1995. His monument in Yankee Stadium is a tribute to his talent and character, but is now one among many Yankee monuments. Gehrig did not project the glamour of some of his contemporaries, but it is his accomplishments that are a testimony to this remarkable athlete.

Paul Gallico, Pride of the Yankees (1941), is a biography published at the time of Gehrig's death. For a more recent profile, see Ray Robinson, Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time (1990). Gehrig's wife, Eleanor, published a memoir with Joseph Durso, My Luke and I (1976). An obituary is in the New York Times (3 June 1941).

Michael Polley

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