Lou Gehrig: The New York Yankees “Iron Horse”

Lou Gehrig

Life can be unapologetically cruel. In the blink of an eye, it can take everything away from you and you don’t even know why. One of the cruelest things in the world to me would be a person’s body failing them while their mind doesn’t. I would know, I’ve seen it happen. What is even more cruel is when it happens to you before you even turn forty. 

That’s what happened to Lou Gehrig, cut down in the prime of his baseball career by a devastating diagnosis. Parent’s lost their son, sibling’s lost their brother, the New York Yankees lost a superstar, and the world lost an icon.

Henry Louis Gehrig (born Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig) was born on June 19, 1903, in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan. Now I don’t know what his mom was eating during her pregnancy because when Gehrig was born, he weighed almost fourteen pounds. Imagine pushing that little butterball out of your lady parts. He was the second child of German immigrants, Christina Foch and Heinrich Gehrig. Gehrig’s dad was a sheet-metal worker who often found himself unemployed due to alcoholism and epilepsy. His mom was a maid and was relied on to be the breadwinner in the family. Two of Gehrig’s sisters passed away at a young age after contracting whooping cough and measles, one brother also died in infancy.

From an early age, Lou helped his mom with the housework, doing chores such as folding laundry and picking up supplies from the local stores. Gehrig was fluent in German and did not learn English until the age of five despite having been born in the United States. Although his first name was Henry (Heinrich) Gehrig went by his middle name Louis (Ludwig) to avoid being confused with his dad, since they had the same name. 

Gehrig first gained national attention for his baseball ability while playing a game at Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field) in Chicago with his New York School of Commerce team on June 26, 1920. Gehrig’s team was playing against local Lane Tech High School in front of more than 10,000 spectators. Gehrig, still a teenager at the time, hit a grand slam completely out of the park. This was an unheard-of feat for a seventeen-year-old. Real quick for my non-baseball followers; a grand slam is when the bases are loaded (runners on first, second, and third) and the person up to bat hits a home run, bringing everyone in for a score.

Lou Gehrig attended PS 132 in Manhattan before transferring to Commerce High School. He graduated in 1921 and began studying engineering at Columbia University. He dropped out after two years, finding schoolwork difficult. After leaving the university Gehrig decided to start pursuing a career in professional baseball. Gehrig earned a football scholarship to the university and played both football and baseball while enrolled as a student. Before his first semester, New York Giants manager John McGraw advised him to play summer professional baseball under the assumed name, Henry Lewis, even though it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. After playing a dozen summer games, Gehrig was found out and was banned from collegiate sports his freshman year. Gehrig was allowed to return to collegiate sports his sophomore year and in 1922 he was a fullback in the Columbia Lions football program. In 1923, he played first base and pitched for the Columbia baseball team.

On April 18, 1923, the same day Yankee Stadium opened and Babe Ruth inaugurated the team’s new stadium with a home run against the Boston Red Sox, Gehrig struck out seventeen Williams Ephs College batters to set a team record. It didn’t matter that only a handful of spectators turned up for the game at Columbia’s field because among the small group was Yankees scout Paul Krichell. However, it wasn’t Gehrig’s pitching that impressed Krichell, it was his powerful left-handed hitting. Many scouts saw Gehrig as being “the next Babe Ruth”. On April 30, 1923, Lou Gehrig signed a contract with the New York Yankees. For parts of the 1923 and 1924 seasons, Gehrig played with the minor-league team the Hartford Senators.

Gehrig joined the Yankees midway through the 1923 season and made his major-league debut as a pinch hitter (a baseball player who is sent in to bat for another) on June 15, 1923, at the age of nineteen. Gehrig saw limited play his first two seasons with the Yankees and sat as a backup for first baseman Wally Pip. He played in twenty-three games and was left out of the Yankees’ 1923 World Series roster. Gehrig’s break came part way into the 1925 season when he took over for a slumping Pipp. He hit twenty home runs and had sixty-eight runs batted in. He played in over 126 games. Unlike Babe Ruth, Gehrig was not a gifted position player (infielder, outfielder, catcher) so first base suited him perfectly. This was a position given to a player that was a strong hitter but a weaker fielder. In 1926 Gehrig batted .313, with forty-seven doubles, an American League-leading twenty triples, sixteens home runs, and 112 RBIs. This was deemed as Lou Gehrig’s big breakout season. In the 1926 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Gehrig hit .348 with two doubles and four RBIs. The Cardinals eventually won the series four games to three.

Lou Gehrig put together one of the greatest seasons by any batter in history in 1927. He hit .373, with 218 hits: 101 singles, fifty-two doubles, eighteen triples, forty-seven home runs, and 175 RBIs. This surpassed teammate Babe’s Ruth 171 RBIs six years earlier. Gehrig had a .474 on-base percentage and a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s 117 extra-base hits that season are second all-time to Babe Ruth’s 119 extra-base hits in 1921. Lou Gehrig’s outstanding performance helped the Yankees earn a 110-44 record, win the AL pennant, and take a four-game sweep against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1927 World Series.

Lou Gehrig was named the league’s MVP, but his accomplishments were overshadowed by Babe Ruth’s record-breaking single-season sixty home runs and overall dominance of the 1927 Yankees. The Yankees debuted wearing numbers on their uniforms in 1929. Gehrig selected number four because he hit behind Babe Ruth, who was third in the lineup.

In 1932, Gehrig became the first player in the 20th century to hit four home runs in a single game, when he accomplished the feat on June 3rd against the Philadelphia Athletics (now the Oakland Athletics). He missed getting a fifth home run when Athletics center fielder Al Simmons made a leaping catch of a fly ball at the center-field fence. That same day John McGraw announced his retirement after thirty years of managing the New York Giants (now the San Francisco Giants). McGraw’s news overshadowed Gehrigs in the sports section the next day. 

On August 17, 1933, Gehrig played in his 1,308th consecutive game against the St. Louis Browns (now the St. Louis Cardinals) at Sportsman’s Park. This broke the longest streak of consecutive games-played, a record previously held by Everett Scott. Lou Gehrig met Eleanor Twitchell in 1932 and the pair started dating. They got married in September of the following year. Eleanor was the daughter of Chicago Parks Commissioner Frank Twitchell. She persuaded Gehrig to hire Babe Ruth’s sports agents Christy Walsh to manage him. Walsh helped Gehrig become the first ever athlete featured on a Wheaties cereal box.  

On April 30, 1934, Lou Gehrig hit his 300th career home run against the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins), becoming the second player to reach the milestone after Ruth. Gehrig won the American League Triple Crown that same year, leading the league with forty-nine home runs, 166 RBIs, and a .363 batting average.  

Lou Gehrig eventually went on to play in 2,130 consecutive games, shattering the previous record of 1, 307. It was during this streak that a sportswriters nicknamed Gehrig “the Iron Horse” and it stuck. In some cases, Gehrig managed to keep the streak intact through pinch-hitting appearances; in others, the streak continued despite injuries. On April 23, 1933, a pitch by Washington Senators pitcher Earl Whitehill struck Gehrig in the head. Although the hit almost knocked him unconscious, Gehrig remained in the game. On June 14, 1933, Gehrig was ejected from a game, along with Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, but he had already been at bat, this counted as him playing in the game.

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

Lou Gehrig was the first player in Major League Baseball history to have his number retired when the Yankees retired his number four jersey. Gehrig was showered with gifts, commemorative plaques, and trophies. They were presented by VIPs, stadium groundskeepers, and janitorial staff. As soon as Gehrig was handed the gifts, he would place them on the ground, as he simply did not have the strength to hold them. The New York Yankees presented Gehrig with a silver trophy bearing all of their engraved signatures. Inscribed on the front was a poem written by New York Times writer John Kieran. The trophy became one of Gehrig’s most prized possessions and is currently on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.On July 4, 1939, Gehrig delivered what has been called “baseball’s Gettysburg Address” to a sold-out crowd. Gehrig usually avoided public attention and did not want to speak, but the crowd chanted for him and he had some sentences memorized in case the moment should arise. 

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve 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.  

When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? 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. — Thank you.” 

When Gehrig’s speech concluded the crowd stood and applauded for almost two minutes. Gehrig was visibly shaken as he stepped back from the microphone, and wiped his tears away with his handkerchief. His former teammate Babe Ruth hugged him as a band played “I Love You Truly” and the crowd chanted, “We love you, Lou!” The following day the New York Times called the moment “one of the most touching scenes ever witnesses on a ball field. That made even hardened reporters swallow hard”. 

On July 11, 1939, Gehrig, appeared in the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium as the American League team captain, officially on the roster as a reserve player. Following his retirement from baseball, Gehrig wrote, “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present.” Struggling against his ever-worsening physical condition, he added, “I intend to hold on as long as possible, and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”

In October 1939, Gehrig accepted Mayor La Guardia’s appointment to a ten-year term as a New York City parole commissioner and was sworn into office on January 2, 1940. During this time, he was often helped by Eleanor, who would guide his hand when he had to sign official documents. Gehrig’s deteriorating physical condition made it impossible for him to continue and he quietly resigned from the position a little under a year later.

Lou Gehrig passed away at his home at 10:10 p.m. on June 2, 1941, seventeen days before his thirty-eighth birthday. Upon hearing the news Babe Ruth and his wife Claire went to the Gehrig’s house to be with Eleanor. Mayor La Guardia ordered flags in New York to be flown at half-staff, and major league ballparks around the nation did the same. The couple had no children as Eleanor was unable to do so. Thousands stopped by the Church of the Divine Paternity to view Gehrig’s body. Following the funeral held at Christ Episcopal Church of Riverdale, Gehrig’s remains were cremated. His ashes were locked into a crypt in a stone monument marking his grave at Kensico Cemetery.  

Despite becoming a widow at an early age Eleanor never remarried. She later told reporters. “I had the best of it. I would not have traded two minutes of my life with that man for 40 years with another.” She dedicated the remainder of her life to supporting ALS research. Eleanor Gehrig passed away on March 6, 1984. It was her eightieth birthday. She was interred in Kensico Cemetery with her beloved husband.

Over the years, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth have been compared extensively. One difference that stands out most is the fact that Ruth usually hit home runs as high fly balls, while Gehrig’s were line drives. During the ten seasons they were teammates Gehrig and Ruth were next to each other in the batting order and played a majority of the games. Gehrig only had more home runs than Ruth in a season once, Ruth’s last year with the Yankees, 1934. In 1931 both players hit forty-nine home runs that season. Gehrig almost always outnumbered Ruth with RBIs. On December 7, 1939, Lou Gehrig was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in a special election held by the Baseball Writers’ Association related to his illness. At thirty-six years old he was the youngest player to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame to date. A record he held until 1972 when Sandy Koufax who was five months younger than Gehrig at the time was elected.

Gehrig never had a formal induction ceremony and on July 20, 2013, he and eleven other deceased ballplayers, received a special tribute during the induction ceremony, held during “Hall of Fame Induction Weekend”. The New York Yankees dedicated a monument to Gehrig in center field at Yankee Stadium on July 6, 1941, the monument called him “A man, a gentleman and a great ballplayer whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time.” 

The Lou Gehrig Memorial Award is given annually to a major league baseball player who best exhibits the character and integrity of Gehrig, on and off the field. It was first presented in 1955, fourteen years after Gehrig’s death. The name of each winner is inscribed onto the Lou Gehrig Award plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The first player to win the award was Alvin Dark, shortstop for the New York Giants. In 2021, Salvador Perez, catcher for the Kansas City Royals won the award. The last New York Yankee to win the award was Derek Jeter in 2010. That year, Jeter broke Gehrig’s record for most hits as a member of the New York Yankees.  

The ALS treatment and research center at Gehrig’s alma mater, Columbia University, is named The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig ALS Center. The center has a clinical and research function directed at ALS and other related motor neuron diseases, such as; primary lateral sclerosis and progressive muscular atrophy. In March 2021, the MLB declared June 2nd to be Lou Gehrig Day. June 2nd was selected because it is the anniversary of when Gehrig became the Yankees’ starting first baseman in 1925. It is also the date he passed away. Sixty years after saying goodbye to baseball, Lou Gehrig received the most votes of any ballplayer on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. This team consists of the 100 greatest MLB players from the twentieth century. Each player on the team was picked based on fan balloting in 1999. That same year editors at Sporting News ranked Gehrig sixth on their list of “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players”.

Even though Lou Gehrig’s symptoms were consistent with ALS and he did not suffer the wild mood swings and eruptions of uncontrolled violence that plague people with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an article published in the September 2010 issue of the Journal of Neuropathy & Experimental Neurology suggested the possibility that some ALS-related illnesses diagnosed in Gehrig and other athletes might actually have been CTE.

Lou Gehrig at bat

In a June 1934 exhibition game, Gehrig was hit by a pitch just above the right eye and was knocked unconscious for approximately five minutes (according to news reports). He left the game but was back in the lineup the next day. Batting helmets weren’t commonly used until the 1940s, so there sure as hell weren’t any concussions protocols in place at the time. On July 13, 1934, Gehrig suffered a “lumbago attack” (a disorder involving the muscles, bones, and nerves in the back) and had to be helped off the field. In the next day’s game, he was listed in the lineup as “shortstop”, batting lead-off. In his first and only plate appearance in the game, he promptly singled after making a hit and was replaced by a pinch runner to rest his throbbing back, never taking the field. Over the years people have speculated that this attack might have been the first symptoms of his debilitating disease.

Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games held steadfast for fifty-six years until Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it on September 6, 1995. Ripken’s streak finished with 2,632 consecutive games. 

In a 1936 Time magazine Word Series cover story about Lou Gehrig called him “the game’s No. 1 batsman”. That year Gehrig’s agent persuaded him to audition for the role of Tarzan in the independent film Tarzan’s Revenge. After receiving a picture of Gehrig in a leopard-spotted costume, Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs telegrammed Gehrig letting him know that he was a “swell” first baseman but wasn’t right for the role.

Although his performance in the second half of the 1938 season was slightly better than in the first half, Gehrig reported feeling physical changes at the midpoint of the season. When the season came to an end, he said, “I was tired mid-season. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t get going again.” His final 1938 statistics were still above average but were significantly down from his 1937 season, in which he batted .351 and slugged .643. In the 1938 World Series, he had four hits in fourteen at-bats, all singles. When the Yankees began their 1939 spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, Gehrig very obviously no longer possessed his once impressive power. His base running had been significantly affected, and at one point he collapsed at Al Lang Stadium, the Yankees’ former spring training park. As the 1939 regular season got under way, Gehrig’s coordination and speed had greatly deteriorated. 

On April 30th, Gehrig went hitless against the Washington Senators, and on May 2, 1939, Lou Gehrig approached Joe McCarthy before a game against the Detroit Tigers and said “I’m benching myself, Joe.”, informing the Yankees’ skipper that he was doing so “for the good of the team”. McCarthy gave in, putting Ellsworth “Babe” Dahlgren in at first base, stating that whenever Gehrig felt he could play again, the position was his. As Yankee’s captain, Gehrig himself took the lineup card out to the shocked umpires before the game. This ended his fourteen-year consecutive game streak. Right before the start of the game, the Briggs Stadium announcer told the fans, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time Lou Gehrig’s name will not appear on the Yankee lineup in 2,130 consecutive games.” The Detroit Tigers’ fans gave Gehrig a standing ovation while he sat on the bench with tear-filled eyes. The next day a photograph of Gehrig reclining against the dugout steps with a stoic expression appeared in the nation’s newspaper. He stayed with the Yankees as team captain for the remainder of the season but never played in a major-league game again.

As Gehrig’s decline continued, his wife Eleanor called the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Her call was transferred to Charles William Mayo, who had been following Gehrig’s career and mysterious loss of strength closely. He told Eleanor to bring her husband in as soon as possible. Gehrig flew to Rochester alone from Chicago, where the Yankees were playing at the time. He arrived at the Mayor Clinic on June 13, 1939. After enduring six days of extensive testing doctors officially gave Gehrig a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on June 19th; his thirty-sixth birthday. Lou Gehrig had ALS. 

The prognosis was very grim: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty with swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy less than three years. Although no impairment of mental functions would occur.  Eventually Eleanor Gehrig was told that the cause of ALS was unknown, but that it was painless, not contagious, and cruel. She was informed that the motor function of the central nervous system is destroyed, but the mind remains fully aware until the bitter end. Gehrig often wrote letters to his wife and in one note written shortly after his diagnosis said:

 “The bad news is lateral sclerosis, in our language “creeping” paralysis. There isn’t any cure … there are very few of these cases. It is probably caused by some germ … Never heard of transmitting it to mates … There is a 50–50 chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years. Playing is out of the question …’” 

The same day Lou Gehrig got his diagnosis the Mayo Clinic released the information to the public. Two days later the New York Yankees announced Gehrig’s retirement and the public immediately pushed to honor him. Sports columnist Bill Corum wrote about the idea of an appreciation day. Other sportswriter picked up on the idea and promoted it in their respective publications. An idea to hold the appreciation day during the All-Star Game was suggested, but Yankees president Ed Barrow quickly shot it down. He did not want Gehrig to share the spotlight with any other all-stars. The Yankees later proclaimed July 4, 1939 “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” at Yankees Stadium. Between the Independence Day doubleheader against the Washington Senators, ceremonies were held on the diamond.  

The next day, The New York Times wrote that the ceremony was “perhaps as colorful and dramatic a pageant as ever was enacted on a baseball field as 61,808 fans thundered a hail and farewell”. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia called Gehrig the “perfect prototype of the best sportsmanship and citizenship”. Joe McCarthy Gehrig’s close friend and Yankees manager spoke of Gehrig; struggling to control his emotions.

McCarthy described Gehrig as “the finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman, and citizen that baseball has ever known.” He turned to Gehrig with tears in his eyes and said, “Lou, what else can I say except that it was a sad day in the life of everybody who knew you when you came into my hotel room that day in Detroit and told me you were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God, man, you were never that.”

Lou Gehrig delivering his famous “luckiest man” speech

In 2012, Minnesota state representative Phyllis Kahn sought to change the law protecting the privacy of Gehrig’s medical records held at the Mayo Clinic, to discover if a connection could exist between his illness and the concussion-related trauma he received during his baseball career. Gehrig played before the invention of batting helmets.

To formally diagnose CTE would require autopsy results or Gehrig’s brain. An autopsy was not conducted and his brain is no longer in existence since he was cremated. Even if he was buried, I doubt his brain would be hanging around. Many physicians have argued that looking at medical records alone would be futile.

Speculations about the cause of Gehrig’s death stemmed from a study released on August 17, 2010. Twelve athletes that had been officially diagnosed with CTE were used as the study’s sample. It discovered that three of the twelve athletes had symptoms similar to those of Lou Gehrig. ALS itself is a rare condition and only about 6,000 individuals in the United States are diagnosed with it each year. When you look at the current population of the United States 6,000 is pretty rare. Individuals that suffer from repeated trauma to the head and brain develop symptoms that can mimic those of ALS.

Researchers conducting the study identified spinal cord marking on the three athletes that resembled Gehrig’s. It suggested that they passed away from concussions or other head trauma that attacks the central nervous system. According to the study two former football players diagnosed with ALS, Wally Hillenburg, and Eric Scoggins, had CTE. As mentioned earlier in the article Gehrig had been hit in the head numerous times during his career, once being knocked unconscious.

Dr. Anne McKee, director of the neuropathology lab for the New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers was the lead neuropathologist of the study. She hypothesized the concussions Gehrig suffered, not ALS, might have been what killed him. The cause of Lou Gehrig’s death will always be considered ALS. No study will change that and it will always be considered an undeniable fact.

It doesn’t matter whether it was ALS or the concussions he suffered and basically ignored; Gehrig died too damn young. The MLB lost a legend that could have done so much more for the sport and the world (according to people who knew him) lost a hell of a good guy. 

Sources:

“Lou Gehrig” – Wikipedia

“Lou Gehrig” – Baseball Hall of Fame

“Lou Gehrig and the History of ALS” – The ALS Association

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