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Gehrig, Lou (1903-1941)

Gehrig, Lou (1903-1941)

Baseball great Lou Gehrig (the "Iron Horse") was, alongside teammate Babe Ruth, a powerhouse player on the New York Yankees during the 1920s and 1930s until his career was cut short by the degenerative disease that bears his name. Born Henry Louis Gehrig in 1903, he was the son of German immigrants who were living in Manhattan. Gehrig's high-school accomplishments earned him an opportunity to play sports at Columbia University, but he was coaxed into signing a professional contract with Hartford of the Eastern League under the surname Lewis. Gehrig hid his identity but not his talent, and the ruse was soon discovered. Columbia University promptly declared him ineligible for the 1921-1922 school year, but in his second year of college, he played exceptionally in both football and baseball. Paul Krichell of the New York Yankees discovered Gehrig in 1923 and offered him a $1,500 signing bonus, which Gehrig accepted despite his parents' objections. He played most of the year in the minors before making his Yankee debut in September. Likewise, Gehrig spent most of the 1924 season playing in the minors, but in June of 1925, he began a consecutive game streak that would not end until 1939.

Lou Gehrig made an immediate impact on the Yankees, and his ability to hit propelled him to national stardom by the late 1920s. He hit behind Babe Ruth on baseball's most powerful lineup, which the press nicknamed "Murderer's Row," and succeeded in outhitting Ruth by the early 1930s. Gehrig compiled a streak of thirteen consecutive years with more than 100 runs and runs batted in, and a 12-year streak of hitting over.300. He led the American League in home runs three times and in runs four times, and ranks third all-time in RBIs and slugging percentage. The durable first baseman was selected as the American League's Most Valuable Player twice, won the Triple Crown in 1934, and won six world championships as a Yankee.

Statistics alone did not endear Lou Gehrig to the nation. Representing the tireless worker during the Great Depression, the "Iron Horse" established a record for the number of consecutive games played: 2,130 games in succession from 1925 to 1939. Gehrig's consecutive game streak continued despite back spasms, a broken toe, a broken thumb, and 17 different hand fractures. This record stood for more than half a century until it was surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles.

Gehrig's statistics began to slip in 1938, and he lacked his usual strength and mobility. When Gehrig's teammates congratulated him on a routine ground ball in 1939, he knew it was time to take himself out of the game, and he never again played for the Yankees. His ailing health led him to the Mayo clinic where doctors diagnosed him with a rare and fatal degenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Since his diagnosis, ALS has been commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease.

On July 4, 1939, the Yankees honored the newly retired Lou Gehrig in front of 62,000 fans. He received awards, retired his number, and then gave one of the most famous speeches in baseball history. Gehrig thanked the many people who touched his life, telling the crowd "Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." The powerful speech electrified the nation and epitomized his humble nature.

Gehrig spent the remaining two years of his life working for the New York City Parole Commission and spending time with family and friends. The Baseball Hall of Fame exempted him from the five-year waiting period, and he was honored by induction in Cooperstown in 1939. The story of unconditional love between Lou and his wife, Eleanor, received national attention, and shortly after Gehrig's death, Hollywood made Pride of the Yankees, a movie about his life and marriage that starred Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. The movie was a box-office success and was nominated for Best Picture.

—Nathan R. Meyer

Further Reading:

Gallico, Paul. Lou Gehrig, Pride of the Yankees. New York, Grosset and Dunlap, 1942.

Gehrig, Eleanor. My Luke and I. New York, Crowell, 1976.

Robinson, Ray. Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time. New York, W. W. Norton, 1990.

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