Gehrig – The luckiest man on the face of the earth

It’s a shame that when most people hear the name “Lou Gehrig” the first thing they think of is either Gary Cooper’s speech in Pride of the Yankees or just for ALS, the disease that ultimately took Gehrig’s life too soon. Gehrig, to me at least, is the ultimate example of true Yankee-ness. He, not some of his fellow teammates, set that famed Yankee standard for excellence, perseverance, integrity, teamwork, and winning, rightfully earning the nickname “The Iron Horse” in the process.

Like the two players in yesterday’s post, Lou Gehrig was a native New Yorker from a rough home in the Harlem/Morningside Heights part of Manhattan. Born the year the Yankees became the Yankees (1903), it seemed Gehrig was born to play in New York. He first came to some attention in 1920 when his high school team was playing in Chicago (in Wrigley Field, of all places) and the 17-year-old Gehrig smacked a grand slam completely out of that professional baseball park, something most of modern-day Cubs players can’t do at a professional level. Instead of jumping into professional baseball right after graduation the next year, Gehrig instead headed to Columbia, ironically on a football scholarship and studying engineering.

Yankee Stadium officially opened on April 18, 1923. Babe Ruth hit a home run (no surprise there). And just across the Harlem River, Gehrig (this day a pitcher) struck out 17 opposing batters, setting a team record. Though Columbia ultimately lost the game and attendance was sparse, a Yankee scout named Paul Krichell was there to witness Gehrig in action, something he was doing on a regular basis at this point. Krichell wasn’t so much impressed with Gehrig the pitcher as he was with Gehrig the powerful left-handed batter. Two months later, Gehrig was a Yankee and in their minor league system in Hartford for a couple of years, pinch-hitting on occasion in the Bronx when called upon.

By 1925, Gehrig was a regular in the Bronx, finally hitting his stride the next year leading the league in triples (20). But 1927 would be the year the Yankees cemented their status as something to be feared. As part of “Murderers’ Row” (Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri), the great #4 was born into legend. That year, Gehrig alone led the league in games played (155), doubles (52), and RBIs (175) and batted with a .373 average. 1927 was also the first of his 6 World Series rings (1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, 1938). That year, Gehrig easily earned the first of his two MVP awards (1927, 1936).

The Iron Horse

Gehrig was easily overshadowed by the larger-than-life Ruth, but if you asked most baseball historians, statisticians, and Yankee fans in general, they would point to Gehrig as the glue that held this particular generation together. Ruth might have gotten them in the seats, but Gehrig gave them consistency that consistency true fans crave. After all, no one else has the honor of being the only player to ever hit 4 home runs in a single game (in 1932 against the Philadelphia Athletics). Or the honor that really earned him his nickname: beginning with a pinch-hitting stint in 1925 (his first full year with the Yankees), Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games, despite an odd stretch of random injuries in the mid-1930’s. In fact, x-rays later in his life revealed a string of fractures he sustained in his playing career he brushed off as an annoyance and played on. Gehrig’s record was later broken in 1995 by another legend of his own time Cal Ripken Jr. (who went on to play a total of 2,216 consecutive games).

When they began doing All-Star Games in 1933, Gehrig was a constant figure at 1st base and in the batter’s box during those exhibition games intended to bolster spirit during the Great Depression. Gehrig played in 7 ASG through his last season (1939). And he also earned that coveted Triple Crown Award in 1934 for having the most home runs (49), RBIs (165), and highest batting average (.363).

Toward the end of his 1938 season, Gehrig himself noticed a physical change, probably initially pushing off what he assumed was the “age factor”. When the Yankees reported to St. Petersburg in 1939 for Spring Training, the 35-year-old already appeared as a shadow of himself, collapsing at one point during base running drills. Just a month into the season, Gehrig played his 2,130th consecutive game, going hitless and realizing this wasn’t going to be the same. The next game, May 2 in Detroit, Gehrig took himself off the line-up card and became the Yankees Captain for the remainder of the year but never played another inning of baseball.

Gehrig’s wife Eleanor finally took matters into her own hands, getting him an appointment at the Mayo Clinic, where they were finally able to diagnose Gehrig’s symptoms: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and no more than 3 years life expectancy. With unknown origins, ALS attacks the central nervous system, ultimately incapacitating the person all the while the mind remains fully functional and aware of the physical shutdown and pain.

After announcing his retirement due to his fatal diagnosis, the Yankees proclaimed July 4, 1939 “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, a doubleheader against the Washington Senators on America’s birthday. In between games, they held a ceremony to honor Gehrig, complete with his fellow teammates from the 1927 team, the mayor, all sorts of political dignitaries, and over 60,000 fans. In a symbol of great honor, the Yankees retired Gehrig’s #4, the very first player in MLB history with that honor. He was also gifted with trophies, certificates, and special gifts of all sorts, much like we’ve become used to with the “Retirement Circuit” made by other great ones (like Rivera did this last year).

And then Gehrig took a moment for himself, that moment memorialized by actor Gary Cooper just a few years later in Pride of the Yankees (1942). This clip is a modified version of the original speech, though the creator of the tribute video includes in the entire speech in text with pictures of Gehrig’s playing days.

That December, Gehrig was voted in a special election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but never had a formal induction ceremony. Gehrig, though learning how to live with his condition, never let it get to him, trying to live life to the fullest, taking appointments and working however he could for the city and people he loved.

On the evening of June 2, 1941, sixteen years to the day after he replaced Wally Pipp at first base and beginning his amazing game streak, just two years after his retirement from baseball, The Iron Horse died at his home in the Bronx, just a few minutes from Yankee Stadium. MLB and the city of New York flew their flags at half-mast. With no children, Eleanor Gehrig dedicated the next 43 years of her life (until her death in 1984) to supporting ALS reasearch.

In a long line of great Yankee first basemen — Joe Pepitone (1962-1969), Don Mattingly (1984-1995), Tino Martinez (1996-2001), and Mark Teixeira (2009-present) — it’s hard to argue that they will ever be anyone like Lou Gehrig, his tenacity, his passion, his love for the game, and his excellence in all aspects of his career.

Go Yankees!

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