Lou Gehrig, The Iron Horse
Lou Gehrig was born June 19, 1903, to Heinrich and Christina Gehrig in Yorkville in Manhattan. He would be the only one of the couple’s four child to reach the age of three. His father suffered illness throughout his life, leaving Gehrig’s mother to make the money and run the household.
Gehrig grew up a fan of the New York Giants and excelled at baseball in high school, drawing comparisons to Babe Ruth even as a teen. When he wasn’t busy playing baseball, he often helped his mother serve meals and clean up at a frat house at Columbia University, where he would eventually accept a football scholarship. But he would stay at Columbia for just two years, lured away by the promise of a career in Major League Baseball.
He would mash in the minors from 1921 to 1924, batting .344 with 61 dingers across 777 plate appearances, while hitting .447/.488/.711 across 42 plate appearances with the Yankees in 1923 and 1924. But he was being held back by the presence of Wally Pipp, Yankee first baseman since 1915 and a prodigious RBI man (back when RBI men were cool). But on June 2, 1925, Gehrig finally got his chance and he made the most of it.
What happened that day isn’t exactly clear, with legend saying that Pipp came into the clubhouse looking for an aspirin, while Pipp himself claiming years later that he’d been beaned during batting practice and had to go to the hospital. In any event, Gehrig went 3-for-5 with a double and a run scored in the Yankees’ 8-5 win over Washington and he never looked back—not until May 2, 1939.
Over the course of his 17-year career, Gehrig mashed 493 homers and 534 doubles, had a slash line of .340/.447/.632 and an OPS+ of 179. He scored 1,888 runs, and drove in 1,995 more. He won two MVPs and finished top 5 six other times, he made 7 All Star Games, and won a Triple Crown in 1934 with 49 homers, 166 ribbies and a .363 batting average. From 1927 to 1938, he helped lead the Yankees to six World Series titles. And, most famously, he played in 2,130 straight games, earning himself the nickname The Iron Horse.
But the 1938 season was, by Gehrig’s insane standards, a bad one, as he hit just .295/.410/.523 with 29 homers, 114 RBI, 115 runs scored and just 4.7 wins above replacement while playing every game--instead of playing like a god, he was merely playing at an all-star level, and so following the season, the Yankees gave him a pay cut. Gehrig was determined to get back to his previous level of greatness, but found himself dogged by fatigue and weakness during his offseason training. He was terrible in spring training, at one point swinging and missing at 19 straight batting practice pitches, failing to make catches at first and finally collapsing on the floor of the clubhouse.
Things did not get better with the arrival of the regular season, as he hit .143/.273/.143 in 33 plate appearances over the team’s first 8 games. And so, on May 2, 1939, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, thus breaking his string of consecutive games played.
“I decided last Sunday night on this move. I haven’t been a bit of good to the team since the season started. It would not be fair to the boys, to (Yankee manager) Joe (McCarthy) or to the baseball public for me to try going on,” he explained to the press.
After countless visits to the best doctors in the country, Gehrig was finally diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a debilitating disease that attacks the nervous system, slowly eating away at one’s control of their muscles, typically leading to death within two to five years of its onset. The great Lou Gehrig had no choice but to retire.
And so, on July 4th, 1939, more than 42,000 fans turned up at Yankee Stadium for Lou Gehrig Day, where the greatest first baseman in the game’s history gave one of the all time greatest speeches.
Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. 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?
Sure I’m lucky.
Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?
Sure I’m lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something.
When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something.
When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so 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 been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.
Gehrig passed away less than two years later, on June 2, 1941, seventeen days shy of his 38th birthday.