American baseball player
Lou Gehrig, dubbed the "Iron Man" of baseball, is best known for his record for most consecutive games played, 2,130, which he held from his retirement in 1939 until Baltimore Orioles player Cal Ripken, Jr. surpassed him in 1995. Gehrig also had an impressive bat: he holds the Major League record for career grand slams (23), and, until St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire 's phenomenal slugging streak, Gehrig held the record for most career home runs by a first baseman (493). He stole home plate fifteen times in his career, and his lifetime batting average, .340, is the fifteenth highest ever. However, to many Gehrig is remembered primarily for the disease which took his life and his name.
Gehrig was born in Manhattan in 1903 to Christina and Heinrich Gehrig, both recent immigrants from Germany. He was the only one of their children to survive past infancy. Because of this, Gehrig and his mother developed an extremely close relationship. Although the Gehrig family was lower-middle class, Christina Gehrig worked hard as a maid, cook, and washerwoman to make sure that Gehrig had every opportunity to succeed. From a young age Gehrig helped his mother, delivering the washing that she took in, but he still found plenty of time to play.
Gehrig excelled at all of the sports which could be played on the streets of New York, including his favorite, baseball. In the summer, he and his friends often dove into the Hudson River, off of the cliffs at 181st Street where the George Washington Bridge would later be built. When he was eleven Gehrig swam the whole way to New Jersey and back from this point, which reportedly earned him a boxing on the ears from his father. Dangerous
stunts aside, the elder Gehrig encouraged Lou's physical development, often taking Gehrig along when he went to the turnvereins, gymnasiums where German-American men gathered. Heinrich Gehrig also bought Lou his first baseball glove.
Taste of Fame
Christina Gehrig dreamed of Gehrig going to college and becoming an engineer, even though at that time it was rare for working class children to continue their education beyond the eighth grade. After Gehrig graduated from grammar school, she arranged for him to attend the High School of Commerce, where he learned useful clerking skills like typing and bookkeeping. He also gained some fame as a player on Commerce's football, soccer, and baseball teams. Commerce won three straight soccer championships in his years there, and in 1920 Gehrig was even invited to play in a national high-school baseball championship game in Chicago with the Commerce team.
Christina Gehrig was dismayed at her son's continued interest in baseball, a sport which was only for "bummers" as far as she was concerned, and it took a great deal of pleading for Gehrig to convince her to let him take the trip to Chicago. The Commerce team traveled to Chicago on an elegant train, where former president William Howard Taft and other dignitaries stopped by to wish them well. In the ninth inning of the game, which was played in Wrigley Field, Gehrig hit a grand slam home run—a rare feat, for in the entire Major League season the previous year, only eighteen home runs had been hit at Wrigley Field.
Gehrig did not only play baseball with his school's team. The summer Gehrig was sixteen, he pitched in a Yonkers city league on the Otis Elevator Company team, since he had gotten an office job with that company for the summer. He also earned $5 a game playing semi-professional ball with the Minqua Baseball Club, which was sponsored by one of the many Democratic clubs which covered New York in those days. The fact that Gehrig was now making money from baseball went a long way to reconciling Christina Gehrig to the sport.
In Gehrig's senior year at Commerce, Christina took a job as a maid and cook at one of Columbia University's fraternity houses, where she made a connection with Columbia's graduate manager of athletics, Bobby Watt. Watt came to a Commerce game and watched Gehrig play football one day, and he was impressed enough to give Gehrig a football scholarship to the university.
Although it was against the rules for college players to earn any money from their sport, this was a widely violated rule. Scores of college-age men played in the minor leagues over the summer under assumed names, and in 1921, months after graduating from high school, Gehrig was one of them. He signed a contract with the Hartford Senators, a Class A team affiliated with the New York Giants. For two weeks he played under the name "Lou Lewis," but then Columbia found out and forced him to quit. Gehrig lost his eligibility to play for Columbia for one year as a result, but for the next two summers he played semi-professional baseball on Sunday afternoons with a Morristown, New Jersey team as Lou Long. This was widely known, but no one is sure whether Columbia never found out this time, or whether they knew and decided to ignore it.
Gehrig played his one and only season of baseball for Columbia, as a pitcher, in 1923. He was almost instantly heralded as a star. In one game, he set a record for number of strikeouts—seventeen—which would stand at Columbia for almost fifty years. In another, he hit the longest home run ever at Columbia's South Field: it bounced off the steps of the library across 116th street, nearly beaning the dean of the college. Through such feats, Gehrig caught the eye of New York Yankees scout Paul Krichell, who offered him $3,500 to sign with the Yankees. Gehrig did. Although it disappointed his mother to see him drop out of school, both of Gehrig's parents were ill at the time and the family desperately needed the money.
The Beginning of a Legend
Gehrig started playing for the Yankees in June of 1923. As the story goes, his first meeting with the team was stunning. At the beginning of that first practice, before most of the team was on the field, several of the Yankees best hitters, including Babe Ruth , were taking some extra batting practice. Manager Miller Huggins escorted Gehrig onto the field and encouraged him to take a few swings. Gehrig grabbed a bat at random. It happened to be Ruth's favorite, a forty-eight ounce monster that was too heavy for most players to handle. Gehrig's nervousness showed as he missed a few pitches, then hit a few weak ground balls. Then some of his friends from Columbia, who were sitting in the bleachers providing moral support, started to shout encouragement to him. "Show that big guy, Lou. He's not the only one that can hit it out of the park," one said, referring to Ruth. Gehrig proceeded to hit some half-dozen balls into "Ruthsville," the section of the right-field bleachers where many of Ruth's hits wound up. The veteran Yankees were stunned, while Gehrig's friends only got louder in their cheers. Embarrassed, Gehrig walked away from the plate.
Gehrig made his major league debut only weeks later, on June 16. He spent much of the 1923 and 1924 seasons in the minor leagues, playing for the Hartford Senators, but he was learning the confidence he needed to play big-league baseball. He was called back to the Yankees in late August of 1924 and became an invaluable pinch-hitter, and in 1925 he joined the starting line-up.
|1903||Born June 19 in New York, New York|
|1921||Enters Columbia University|
|1923||Debuts in the Major Leagues|
|1925||Consecutive games played streak begins June 1|
|1933||Marries Eleanor Twitchell September 29|
|1938||Stars in the Western film Rawhide|
|1939||Consecutive game streak ends at 2,130 on May 2|
|1939||Retires from baseball|
|1941||Dies of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis June 2 in Riverdale, New York|
|1942||The Pride of the Yankees is released|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1927, 1936||Named the American League's Most Valuable Player (MVP)|
|1931||Sets the American League record for most runs batted in in one season (184)|
|1932||Becomes the first and only player to bat in more than 500 runs in three years|
|1934||Wins the American League Triple Crown|
|1939||Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame|
|1939||Becomes the first athlete ever to have his number retired|
Gehrig began his consecutive games streak on June 1, 1925, when he pinch-hit for shortstop Peewee Wanninger. The next day, June 2, Gehrig started at first base. The Yankees already had a good first baseman, the crowd-pleasing Wally Pipp, but that morning Pipp had been struck in the head with a pitch during batting practice. He spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from his injuries, and by the time he returned Gehrig was well established at first base. Pipp was eventually traded, and from June 2 on, Gehrig would play in every single game the Yankees played until 1939.
The Yankees of the late 1920s and the 1930s were legendary. With Gehrig and Ruth, they had the two most powerful hitters in their league; it was not uncommon for each of them individually to have more home runs in a year than many entire teams. Although the Yankees lost a close series in 1926, by 1927 they seemed invincible. Ruth set a record that year with sixty home runs, while Gehrig, the cleanup hitter, set his own record with 175 runs batted in. The Yankees became the first American League team ever to sweep the World Series, and then in 1928 they did it again. Although they did not play in a series again until 1932, the team still had an amazing record in the intervening years. In the 1931 season they set a record with 1,067 runs batted in; Gehrig's contribution to that total, 184 (including three grand slams in four days), is still an American League record.
In 1933, Gehrig became engaged to Eleanor Twitchell, a high-spirited socialite from Chicago. They were married that September in a quiet, private wedding one morning in their new apartment, close to the house which Gehrig had bought for his parents a few years before. Immediately after the wedding, a phalanx of motorcycle-riding police from their town, New Rochelle, escorted the couple to Yankee Stadium: not even getting married could make Gehrig miss a game.
In 1935, Ruth finally left the Yankees and, for one season, Gehrig was the team's uncontested star. Then Joe DiMaggio joined the team, and once again Gehrig was relegated to second place, batting clean-up behind a star. However, Gehrig, always a team player, did not resent
DiMaggio. Later in life, DiMaggio told the following tale: early in his first season with the Yankees, DiMaggio turned around and gave a look to the umpire, George Moriarty, after Moriarty had called two borderline balls as strikes. Moriarty, a long-time umpire who was not cowed by young stars, harshly told DiMaggio to turn back around. Gehrig, who was standing in the on-deck circle, shouted, "Leave the kid alone, George. If you call 'em right, he won't have to turn around."
With DiMaggio and Gehrig, the "Bronx Bombers," as the Yankees were dubbed, won two straight World Series over the New York Giants in 1936 and 1937. Gehrig still played on, going to work every day through broken fingers (at one point or another in his career, he broke every single finger at least once) and through the attacks of back pain which had recently started to plague him. Although occasionally stunts were employed to keep the streak alive, such as having Gehrig bat first and then immediately replacing him with a pinch-runner on days when his back pain was most excruciating, Gehrig was still one of the best, most reliable players in the game.
Gehrig, 'Iron Man' of Baseball, Dies at the Age of 37
…When Gehrig stepped into the batter's box as a pinch hitter for the Yankees on June 1, 1925, he started a record that many believe will never be equaled in baseball. From that day on he never missed a championship game until April 30, 1939—fifteen seasons of Yankee box scores with the name of Gehrig always in the line-up….
But as brilliant as was his career, Lou will be remembered for more than his endurance record. He was a superb batter in his heyday and a prodigious clouter of home runs. The record book is literally strewn with his feats at the plate….
But baseball has had other great hitters before, and other great all-around players. It was the durability of Gehrig combined with his other qualities that lifted him above the ordinary players and in a class all his own.
Source: New York Times (June 3, 1941): 1, 26.
During the off season after the 1937 World Series, Gehrig went to Hollywood and starred in a Western film called Rawhide. This wasn't his first attempt at Hollywood stardom—there had been some talk of Gehrig replacing Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, and some amusing photographs of Gehrig posing in a loincloth even appeared—but it was by far his most successful, even if the reviews were mixed.
The End of the Streak
Gehrig hit the 2,000 consecutive games played mark on May 31, 1938, but shortly thereafter problems started surfacing. Gehrig was no longer hitting like he used to. His batting average that season fell below .300. The rest of the Yankees made up for it, winning the pennant and sweeping the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, but it was clear that something was wrong. Gehrig came back in 1939, but he soon realized that his poor playing was hurting the whole team. On May 2, 1939, after 2,130 consecutive games, Gehrig voluntarily benched himself. In June, the Mayo Clinic diagnosed Gehrig with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which would soon become known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Gehrig formally retired from baseball on July 4, 1939, in Yankee Stadium, where he gave one of the most memorable speeches in the history of sports, declaring himself to be "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." He spent 1940 working as a parole commissioner for New York City, interviewing various convicted criminals, but by the beginning of 1941 he was too weak to work any more, even on crutches. He died on June 2, 1941.
|NYY: New York Yankees.|
The Pride of the Yankees
Lou Gehrig's life story was brought to the big screen in the 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees. Written by renowned Hollywood screenwriters Jo Swerling (of It's a Wonderful Life ) and Herman J. Mankiewicz (of Citizen Kane ) and nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Pride of the Yankees was a major success. Gehrig was played by Gary Cooper, a well-regarded actor, but not one with a natural affinity for baseball. This led to some difficulties filming the baseball scenes. Most notably, since Cooper was right-handed and Gehrig batted with his left, the batting scenes were filmed in reverse, with the players wearing mirror-image uniforms and Cooper batting right-handed and running to third. Although The Pride of the Yankees showcases Gehrig's famous hard work and dedication to the game, its most affecting moments are about Gehrig's tender and supportive relationship with his wife, Eleanor, who was played by Teresa Wright. Many actual Yankees, including Babe Ruth, played themselves in the film.
Gehrig passed into the pantheon of baseball immortals almost immediately upon his retirement. The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted him in the summer of 1939, ignoring their usual five-year waiting period. His #4 was retired, making him the first player ever to be so honored. Baseball diamonds across the country were named for him, as was a Liberty ship during World War II. His life story was dramatized in the 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees. By facing death with the same courageousness with which he had faced life every day, Gehrig finally achieved the fame that he deserved.
Bak, Richard. Lou Gehrig: An American Classic. Dallas: Taylor, 1995.
Gehrig, Eleanor, and Duran, Joseph. My Luke and I. New York: Crowell, 1976.
Robinson, Ray. Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time. New York: Norton, 1990.
"Eleanor Gehrig." Time (March 19, 1984): 92.
"Gehrig, 'Iron Man' of Baseball, Dies at the Age of 37." New York Times (June 3, 1941): 1, 26.
Neff, Craig. "A Stamp of Greatness." Sports Illustrated (June 19, 1989): 16.
Noonan, David. "Double Legacy of the Iron Horse." Sports Illustrated (April 4, 1988): 112-120.
Robinson, Ray. "A Two-Horse Race." Sporting News (September 11, 1995): S8.
Baseball-Reference.com. http://www.baseball-reference.com/ (October 8, 2002).
Lou Gehrig Home Page. http://www.lougehrig.com/ (October 8, 2002).
National Baseball Hall of Fame. http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/ (October 8, 2002).
Sketch by Julia Bauder
One of baseball's greatest hitters, Lou Gehrig (1903-1941) was a teammate of Babe Ruth on the New York Yankees and drove in more runs in his productive 17-year career than all but two other men in history. But Gehrig is known primarily for having played in 2,130 consecutive games and for the crippling disease named after him.
Nicknamed the "Iron Horse," Gehrig never missed a single game as the Yankees first baseman from June 1925 through April 1939. During that time he was a fearsome hitter and prolific run-producer, with a combination of batting average and power that rivaled Ruth's. Struck down in his 30s by the crippling muscle disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Gehrig was immortalized for his emotional farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when he said he was "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
A Strapping Youth
Lou Gehrig was born in New York City on June 19, 1903. His parents, Christina Fack and Heinrich Gehrig, were German immigrants who lived in the lower-middle-class section of Manhattan's Yorkville neighborhood in the early 1900s. Henry Louis (Heinrich Ludwig), the second of four children, was the only one who survived infancy. He weighed an astounding 14 pounds at birth and grew quickly into a strong boy.
The Gehrig family was poor. Heinrich Gehrig was an art-metal mechanic who worked sporadically due to drinking and ill health. Christina Gehrig took jobs as a maid, launderer, cook, and baker. From a young age, Henry helped his mother deliver laundry. He developed a close, lifelong attachment to her. Gehrig's father took him to gymnasiums to work on building up his muscles. Henry Louis was a remarkable young athlete. At age 11, he swam across the Hudson River.
At his mother's insistence, Gehrig went to Manhattan's High School of Commerce. But he spent as much time working as studying. When he was 16, he got a summer job with the Otis Elevator Company in Yonkers, New York, and was the company team's left-handed pitcher. Soon after that, he earned his first money at baseball, $5 a game, pitching and catching for the semipro Minqua Baseball Club. Gehrig gained fame in 1920 when his Commerce High School team, representing New York, played in Wrigley Field against Chicago's best high school team. Gehrig hit a ninth-inning grand slam to ice a victory and garner headlines in New York.
Columbia University recruited Gehrig on a football scholarship. Before enrolling in 1921, Gehrig tried out for legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw, who reprimanded him for missing a ground ball at first base and sent him to the Class A Hartford team, where he played 12 games. Gehrig didn't know that the professional play violated collegiate rules. He was banned from Columbia sports for a year. Playing one season of baseball at scruffy South Field, he hit long home runs off the steps of the Low Library and the walls of the journalism building, while others landed on Broadway. He pitched, played first base and outfield, and hit .444. Paul Krichell, a New York Yankees scout, signed him to a contract.
Gehrig arrived at Yankee Stadium via subway, carrying his spikes and gloves in a newspaper. He made an immediate impact by clouting long homers during batting practice. But he was returned to Hartford and played there for most of 1923 and 1924, appearing in only 23 games with the Yankees in those two seasons.
Pipp's Permanent Replacement
Gehrig stuck with the Yankees in 1925. On June 1, he pinch-hit for shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger. On May 6, Wanninger had replaced Everett Scott in the lineup, ending Scott's record streak of 1,307 consecutive games played. On June 2, a batting-practice pitcher from Princeton hit first baseman, Wally Pipp, before the game. Pipp went to the hospital with a concussion and Gehrig replaced him in the lineup. Pipp never returned to his first-base job, and Gehrig went on to shatter Scott's mark by 803 games.
Gehrig batted fourth in the lineup, behind Ruth, and had a great career that was overshadowed by Ruth's fame and achievements. By the time Gehrig broke in, Ruth was already the nation's biggest sports star. Ruth was a flamboyant character with a voracious appetite for publicity, food, drink, and women. Gehrig, in contrast, was quiet and called little attention to himself. He was a team player, dedicated to winning and unimpressed by personal achievements. Ruth's frequent holdouts for higher salaries bothered Gehrig, to whom "the game was almost holy, a religion," according to sportswriter Stanley Frank.
Sportswriter Marshall Hunt described Gehrig as being "unspoiled, without the remotest hint of ego, vanity or conceit." With his Boy Scout aura, Gehrig inspired writers to describe him as a paragon of virtue in contrast to Ruth. In fact, Gehrig was not that pure. He loved practical jokes and slapstick and sometimes crushed straw boaters on people's heads. Once, in a wacky effort to "break a slump," he urinated over the terrace of a friend's West End apartment.
In the bulky uniforms of those days, the thick-thighed Gehrig looked unathletic and soon acquired the nickname "Biscuit Legs." His fielding around first base was clumsy at first, but he worked hard to improve it. Sportswriter Frank Graham dubbed him "The Quiet Hero." His consecutive game streak eventually earned him the nickname "Iron Horse."
Gehrig was a key member of the 1927 Yankees, considered by many to be the greatest team of all time. That year, Ruth hit 60 home runs, which stood as the record until 1961. Gehrig hit 47, added a league-leading 52 doubles and 18 triples and led baseball with 175 runs batted in. The two were the heart of a lineup so powerful it was nicknamed "Murderer's Row." They led the Yankees to three World Series appearances from 1926 through 1928. In the 1928 series, Gehrig hit four home runs in the Yanks' four-game sweep and hit .545.
The team failed to win the next three years, but not for lack of production from Gehrig and Ruth. From 1929 through 1931, the two sluggers combined for 263 homers. Gehrig led the league with 174 RBIs in 1930 and 184 RBIs in 1931, which set the American League single-season record.
The uncomplaining Gehrig never made more than a third of Ruth's salary. It seemed something was always eclipsing him. Even Gehrig's four-homer game at Shibe Park in Philadelphia in June 1932 was overshadowed by the retirement of legendary Giants manager McGraw that same day. Gehrig's two homers in a 1932 World Series game in Chicago were forgotten in the legend of Ruth's mythic "called shot" homer the same day.
Remarkably little attention was paid to Gehrig's consecutive-games streak as it progressed year after year. In 1933, Gehrig surpassed Scott's record. He continued to play despite broken fingers, back pain, and sore muscles. Nothing could keep him out of the lineup. On September 29, 1933, he married a Chicago woman named Eleanor Grace Twitchell in the morning, then was rushed by motorcade to Yankee Stadium for an afternoon game.
In 1934, Gehrig won the league's Triple Crown, a rare feat, with a .363 batting average, 49 homers and 165 RBIs. Even then, he was not named the league's Most Valuable Player; Mickey Cochrane of the Tigers took that honor, with far inferior statistics. That year was Ruth's last with the Yankees. One day that season, Gehrig was hit during an exhibition game and suffered a concussion. But he played one inning the following day to keep his streak intact. A few weeks later, he couldn't straighten up, said he had a "cold in his back," and left one game after the first inning. Gehrig would suffer similar bizarre attacks over the next few seasons, seemingly harbingers of his fatal disease.
Gehrig played one season without Ruth before a new superstar, Joe DiMaggio, joined the Yankees. Again, the dependable Gehrig was left in the shadows. The Yankees returned to the World Series in 1936, 1937, and 1938. Gehrig turned the tide in 1936 with a key home run against ace pitcher Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants. He finished with a lifetime .361 Series average in 34 games and ranked in the Top Ten all-time in almost every Series hitting category.
Heading for Home
By 1938, Gehrig was in a noticeable decline. His average of .295 was the lowest since 1925. Over the winter, he fell several times while ice skating. During spring training in 1939, his swings were weak; sometimes he had trouble getting up from a sitting position. Yet when the season started, manager Joe McCarthy continued to play Gehrig, to keep the streak alive. A sportswriter observed that Gehrig looked "like a man trying to lift heavy trunks into a truck."
When the Yankees arrived in Detroit for a May 2 game, Gehrig was hitting .143. He took himself out of the lineup, telling McCarthy it was "for the good of the team." Gehrig took the lineup card to home plate with Babe Dahlgren's name at first base. The Detroit fans applauded for two minutes. Gehrig tipped his cap and disappeared into the dugout and the record books. He would never play another game. His streak of 2,130 games was a record that would stand for 56 years. He finished with 493 home runs, 535 doubles, 162 triples, a .340 batting average and 1,990 RBIs, third-highest among all major leaguers.
A month later, Gehrig entered the Mayo Clinic and was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative muscle disorder first described in the late 1800s by a French physician. Gehrig remained with the team, sitting on the bench. He professed awe at having a fan's perspective on his beloved game. "I never appreciated some of the fellows I've been playing with for years," he said. "What I always thought were routine plays when I was in the lineup are really thrilling when you see 'em from off the field."
On July 4, 1939, the Yankees staged a Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium. Ruth and other members of Murderer's Row returned for the ceremony, along with Yankee officials and dignitaries. At first, Gehrig was too overwhelmed to speak, but the crowd chanted: "We want Gehrig!" He stepped to the microphone, blowing his nose and rubbing his eyes. Cap in hand, he spoke: "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. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? … "When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that's the finest I know. So I close in saying that I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you."
In December 1939, the Baseball Writers Association waived their usual five-year waiting period and unanimously elected Gehrig to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Gehrig then took a job with the New York City Parole Commission. He rarely visited Yankee Stadium because it was too painful to see the game he missed so much. Gehrig died on June 2, 1941 in New York City, exactly 16 years after he had permanently replaced Pipp in the Yankees lineup.
The following year, movie producer Samuel Goldwyn released "Pride of the Yankees," a Gehrig biography with Gary Cooper in the lead role and Babe Ruth appearing as himself. It became one of the most popular baseball movies ever made.
Little understood then, ALS became more well-known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Its high-profile victim brought it attention, research, and understanding. The incurable disease strikes about 5,000 Americans each year; most die within two to five years. It is the only major disease named after one of its victims. David Noonan of Sports Illustrated noted the irony that "one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived is best known for the way he died."
Hubler, Richard, Lou Gehrig: The Iron Horse of Baseball, Houghton Mifflin, 1941.
Robinson, Ray, Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time, W.W.Norton & Company, 1990.
Sports Illustrated, April 4, 1988; October 8, 1990; September 11, 1995. □