July 2nd, 2014

Lou Gehrig, 75 Years after the Speech

Lou Gehrig, Joe McCarthy

Lou Gehrig, Joe McCarthy

Lou Gehrig … disease … death … sadness. Yes, those are the connections we make automatically now, nearly seventy-five years since he withered away from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. We look at the trophy that his Yankee pals presented to him, this trophy that only two months after his last game was too heavy for him to hold during the farewell ceremonies of July 4, 1939. We think of the sympathetic portrayal by Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees and how Lou loved his wife, Eleanor. It’s hard to get past the Hollywood version and the sadness, beyond the black-bordered memorial, to reflect upon the powerful young man who filled out his white warm-up sweater when he played for Columbia University. Let’s remember that fans loved Lou Gehrig not only because he was modest and kind, attributes that even today may be found in abundance; they loved him because he was extraordinary, a baseball player so relentlessly dependable that scribes likened him to a locomotive, “The Iron Horse.”

Today few fans will offer his name when prodded for the greatest players of all time, no matter that his place in the Hall of Fame was secure even before there was a Hall of Fame. Gehrig was not flashy, not even graceful, but by many measures he was the second-best hitter the game had seen up to his time. That the only man whose exploits exceeded his also happened to play for the Yankees was not a tragedy; it suited Lou’s character perfectly. When his friend, baseball writer Fred Lieb, asked him what it felt like to play in the shadow of Babe Ruth, Lou cheerfully replied, “It’s a big shadow; there’s plenty of room for me.”

So permit me to do for Lou what he would never have done for himself: step forward to recite a few of his routinely astonishing feats. Not only did he play every game for fourteen years, amassing the total of 2,130 that will be identified with him always, even long after Cal Ripken surpassed his mark; he broke the previous record for consistency by 823 games, or roughly five seasons. In the period 1926-1938 he averaged 147 RBIs, a figure many power-hitting Hall of Famers never equaled once. In our century, no one drove in more runs per game played and, as writer Bill Curran pointed out, Lou accomplished that while batting behind two of the greatest base-clearing machines of all time–Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. In 1931 Gehrig drove in 184 runs, still the American League record. But consider that in the previous season he drove in 117 runs in his road games alone (he was not a pure pull hitter and benefited little from the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium). His record of twenty-three grand slams stood until last season.

The Iron Horse and the Big Fella.

The Iron Horse and the Big Fella.

Gehrig was the man who never made any noise; he was in truth what he seemed to be: quiet, sturdy, strong, perfectly sure of his talents yet without an ounce of boast in him. Even when he did something great, he took a backseat. For example, the day he became the first American Leaguer to hit four home runs in a game (and he barely missed a fifth), his feat was scarcely noticed. It was the same day John McGraw announced his retirement. Even after Gehrig’s amazing performance in the Yanks’ four-game sweep of the 1932 World Series–three homers, eight RBIs, a .529 batting average, and a 1.118 slugging mark–Ruth got all the press for his “called shot” (which Gehrig, incidentally, followed with a homer of his own).

His team, of course, was a dynasty, and Gehrig appeared in seven World Series (the pins he received, to which he added his MVP and All-Star jewelry, he made into a bracelet for Eleanor). He was the constant, the only man from the Series contestants of 1926-1928 to play with the World Champs of 1936-39 (although his last game in the 1939 season was on April 30). Even today, after all the stars of all the years since his passing, a look at the top lifetime marks in on-base percentage plus slugging average–OPS, today’s most common measure of batting proficiency–offers this triad: Ruth, Williams, Gehrig.

I wrote this back in 1998 but, as we near the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s great speech, I thought it worth revisiting.


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