“I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
With Derek Jeter a lock to pass the all-time Yankee hit mark set by Lou Gehrig and reams and reams of copy having been devoted to the chase, what the great first baseman was like and what he did in his career is worth recalling.
They called him “Larrupin Lou,” “Iron Horse,” “Biscuit Pants,” “Columbia Lou,” “Buster.” Whatever they called him – he was “The Pride of the Yankees.”
Born Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig II on June 19, 1903 in New York City to poor German immigrants, he was the only one of four children to survive infancy.
Labeled "the Babe Ruth of the schoolyards" after hitting a tremendous grand slam ninth inning home run over the right field fence for his Commerce High School team in a special "national championship" game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Gehrig went on to star at Columbia University.
"I did not go there to look at Gehrig,” Yankee scout Paul Krichell said.” I did not even know what position he played, but he played in the outfield against Rutgers and socked a couple of balls a mile. I sat up and took notice. I saw a tremendous youth, with powerful arms and terrific legs. I said, here is a kid who can't miss."
Despite his mother's protestations, Gehrig signed with the Yankees for a $1,500 bonus. After brief minor league stints in 1923 and 1924; Gehrig came to stay with the Yankees in 1925 batting .295 in 126 games, his first full season. When Lou Gehrig stepped into the batter's box as a pinch hitter on June 1, 1925 for shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger, it began a string of 15 seasons of Yankee box scores with the name Gehrig always in the line-up.
In 1927, his second full season with the Yankees, he was voted the Most Valuable Player in the American League. His .363 average in 1934 gave him the batting championship. There were 13 straight seasons of 100 RBIs, seven seasons of more than 150 RBIs. His power came from his big shoulders, broad back and powerful thighs.
A two time MVP, a three time home run king, a five time RBI champ, Gehrig led the American League in batting average just once - with a .363 average in 1934 when he became the first Yankee to win the Triple Crown. Three times, however, he batted higher than .363 contributing to his .340 career batting average.
Among his records are: 184 RBI in 1931, an American League record, 23 career grand slams, a Major League record. On June 3, 1932, he became the first modern day player to hit four home runs in a game. In his 13 full seasons, Gehrig averaged 147 runs batted in. He hammered 493 career home runs - 73 were three-run homers, 166 were two-run homers. Gehrig homered once every 16.2 at bats. His home run to hit ratio was one to 5.51.
There are estimates that he earned $361,500 in salary from the Yankees. Playing in seven World Series pushed the total income above $400,000. Gehrig received $3,750 in his first season, $6,500 in his second year. This advanced $1,000 in 1927. For the next five years he received $25,000 and then he dropped to $23,000 for 1933 and 1934, after which he received $31,000 in 1935 and 1936, $36,750 in 1937, $39,000 in 1938 and $35,000 for 1939, a season when he played only eight games. Late in his career, Gehrig's hands were x-rayed and doctors spotted 17 fractures that had "healed" while he continued to play. He was worth every penny as he was a major part of seven pennant winners and six world champions.
On May 2, 1939, Wally Pipp whose place Gehrig had taken those long years ago, traveled from his home in Michigan to watch a Tigers-Yankees game. What he saw was that Gehrig, the highest paid player in all of baseball, had taken himself out of the lineup and was at home plate, a presenter of the lineup card to the umpires.
The great Gehrig would languish a while like a bowed oak, still the captain, still the Pride of the Yankees, still the bringer of the lineup card out to umpires before each game.
On June 19, 1939, in another bitter irony, the day of his 36th birthday, Lou Gehrig left the Mayo Clinic with a sealed envelope. “Mr. Gehrig is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This type of illness involves the motor pathways and cells of the central nervous system and in lay terms is known as a form of infantile paralysis. The nature of this trouble makes it such that Mr. Gehrig will be unable to continue his active participation as a baseball player.”
In December 1939, the Baseball Hall of Fame waived the mandatory five year waiting period for Lou Gehrig. On June 2, 1941, exactly 16 years to the day that he replaced Wally Pipp at first base, Gehrig passed away. On the Fourth of July 1941, a monument was erected in centerfield at Yankee Stadium:
HENRY LOUIS GEHRIG
June 19, 1903 –June 2, 1941. A MAN, A GENTLEMAN, AND A GREAT BALLPLAYER WHISE AMAZING RECORD OF 2,130 CONSECUTIVE GAMES SHOULD STAND FOR ALL TIME. THIS MEMORIAL IS A TRIBUTE FROM THE YANKEE PLAYERS TO THEIR BELOVED CAPTAIN AND TEAMMATE.
Harvey Frommer is his 33rd consecutive year of writing sports books. The author of 40 of them including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM, an oral/narrative history (Abrams, Stewart, Tabori and Chang) was published in 2008 as well as a reprint version of his classic "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball." The prolific Frommer is at work on REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK (2010).
Frommer sports books are available direct from the author - discounted and autographed.
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