Last Wednesday marked what would have been Lou Gehrig’s 110th birthday. Although it has been 74 years since the Iron Horse last took the field in a major league game, there is no question that Gehrig is still regarded as the best first basemen to have ever played the game. That statement itself isn’t completely shocking, but it is rather surprising, especially seeing how many talented first basemen have come since. Names like Foxx, McCovey, Killebrew, and even Eddie Murray get tossed around, but none come close to eclipsing Lou. Fans today will make the case for Albert Pujols, and maybe… MAYBE… when all is said and done in Fat Albert’s career that could be… but not just yet.
Today, when you talk about the legacy of Gehrig, it usually comes down to one of two points: The Streak or the Illness. It’s hard to avoid talking about either one of those points when one is discussing Lou. It’s kind of like discussing Barry Bonds and not mentioning his surly demeanor or the PED’s, or not mentioning gluttony and excess when talking about Babe Ruth. The streak is regarded as one of the most hallowed records and achievements in all of baseball history; right up there with Ted Williams hitting .406 and DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. The streak was an accomplishment that would last the better part of 50+ years. The illness, well what can you say about the illness that not only ended both his career and his life, but also took the name of it’s most famous victim. ALS: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.
What sometimes gets overshadowed by both the streak and the illness, is just how good of a baseball player Lou actually was. You have to remember that Gehrig was use to being overshadowed, as he spent the better part of a decade batting cleanup behind the Babe.
But just how good was Lou Gehrig?
His career numbers look like this:
.340 Batting Average – tied for 16th on the all-time list.
2,721 Hits – 59th on the all-time hit list.
493 Home Runs – tied for 26th on the all-time list.
1,992 RBI – 5th on the all-time list.
Now that we have taken a quick glimpse at how Lou’s career stats match up against some of the other greats on the all-time list(s), lets take a look at a few other remarkable moments and highlights from the career of the legendary Lou Gehrig.
• At the age of 17, Gehrig hit a grand slam completely out of Wrigley Field. A rare enough achievement for a professional ball player, let alone a 17 year old high school student.
• On the same day that Yankee Stadium opened and Babe Ruth hit the first home run in it’s history, Gehrig struck out 17 batters as a pitcher in a game at Colombia University. Gehrig was attending Columbia University on a football scholarship. The Yankees would sign him after the 1923 season.
• Gehrig’s breakout season came as a 23 year old in 1926 when he batted .313 with 47 doubles, AL leading 20 triples, 16 Home Runs and 112 RBI.
• The 1927 Yankees are regarded as being one of the best teams of all time, as well as having one of the best lineups of all time; the legendary Murderer’s Row. Gehrig not only batted cleanup for Murderer’s Row, he also ended up winning the 1927 AL MVP thanks to a .373 average • 218 hits • 52 doubles • 18 triples • 47 Home Runs • 175 RBI (record at the time). Despite a season like that, Gehrig could still not escape from the Babe’s shadow; 1927 would be the year that Ruth hit 60 Home Runs.
• Gehrig was one of the best run producers in the history of the game. Lou played in 14 seasons, and he hit the 100 RBI plateau in 13 of them; including seven seasons with 150 RBI or more. He also drove in 509 RBI’s in a three year span from 1930-32 which lead the Majors during that span; Ruth had 498 in the same span. Lou did also hold the MLB record for most RBI in a season (184) until 1931 when Hack Wilson drove in 191.
• His ability to drive in runs stemmed from his power and plate discipline when facing opposing pitchers. Lou had six seasons when he posted a batting average of .350 or higher, including a .379 in 1930; he also had one season where he hit .349. Although Ruth may get more recognition in the power department, it should be noted that Lou was hardly a slouch. Gehrig had five seasons where he hit 40 or more home runs, and eight seasons where he amassed 200 or more hits. His high batting averages can be attributed to his keen batting eye and ability to work the count. In 11 of his 14 seasons, Lou managed to draw 100+ walks.
• Gehrig became the first player in the 20th century to hit 4 home runs in one major league game. He narrowly missed out on hitting a 5th, but center fielder Al Simmons made a highlight reel leaping catch.
Shenanigans with the Babe
In 1927, Ruth and Gehrig teamed up for a “barnstorming” tour across California. The concept was that Gehrig and Ruth would both be player-coaches for their respectful teams during the tour and would travel to multiple towns around Sacramento and the Bay Area. The idea behind it was to bring “big name” baseball players to areas of the country that didn’t necessarily have major or minor league baseball near them. The other purpose behind it was to put a little more cash in the pocket of the Babe; upwards of $25,000. Despite the fun and laughs, both Ruth and Gehrig had a competitive nature toward each other during the regular season. Ruth would win most of the head to head battles, and would definitely be the more famous of the two throughout their playing careers and on, but Lou did get the best of him every now and then. Gehrig would only out slug the Babe once when it came to home runs in a season. That was the 1934 campaign that saw Gehrig hit 49 to Ruth’s 22; it should be noted that the Babe was far from “the Babe” anymore though. During their Yankee career Ruth out slugged Gehrig to the tune of 424 to 347. Lou did out produce him in RBI during that time (1,436 – 1,316), as well as having the higher batting average; .343 to .338.
2,130 games. That’s how many consecutive games Lou Gehrig played. The story goes that Gehrig replaced everyday first basemen Wally Pipp in the starting lineup because Pipp was suffering from a headache. This is a story that Pipp has confirmed. It could also be said that the reason Gehrig got the start was because both Pipp and the Yankees were mired in a long slump, and perhaps a day off and some “fresh blood” would be what the Yanks needed. The streak started on June 2nd, 1925. There some in the baseball world have pointed out that the “iron man” streaks and consecutive games played streaks are detrimental to their actual teams because it forces the manager to play that player despite what that player might be contributing or producing at that time. Although Gehrig had few slumps during his streak, he did have some close calls that came to ending it.
• He was knocked unconscious on two separate occasions in 1933 and 1934. In 1933 he would remain down on the ground for a short period of time, but would remain in the game. During the 1934 incident, he was forced to leave the game with assistance from his teammates, but had batted in his previous appearance, which allowed the streak to remain intact.
• Manager Joe McCarthy would pencil Gehrig in as the starting SS when Lou was under the weather. This was done so Gehrig could bat in the lead off position; he would promptly get replaced by a pinch runner if he got on base.
• The General Manager of the Yankees at the time, Ed Barrow, once postponed a game as a rain out when Gehrig was sick with the flu. Amazingly this was allowed despite the fact that it was not raining.
• Gehrig had X-Rays taken later in his life when he was receiving treatment for his illness. These X-Rays would reveal over 17 fractures in his hands that had healed themselves. A true testament to why he earned the moniker the “Iron Horse.”
Battling an Unknown Assailant
During the 1938 season, something didn’t seem quite right with Gehrig. He was still producing like a future hall of famer should, but his numbers had taken a significant drop compared to his 1937 season.
1937: 569 AB • .351 AVG • 37 HR • 159 RBI • 127 BB • 49 K • .473 OBP
1938: 576 AB • .295 AVG • 29 HR • 114 RBI • 107 BB • 75 K • .410 OBP
I know, still amazing numbers by today standards, but you have to remember that a .295 season from Gehrig was a bit alarming. Lou was getting older (35) but still appeared to have a few good years left. That would all end the following season. During spring training in 1939 it was obvious that there was something physically wrong with Gehrig. His power had been tapped and his base running and fielding was suffering from a lack of coordination, and a loss of speed. By the end of April 1939, Lou Gehrig was hitting .143 with 1 RBI.
Despite his lack of offensive production and continuing pressure from the Yankees front office, manager Joe McCarthy left Gehrig in the everyday starting lineup. In late April, on a routine play, Gehrig had a play occur that changed his career forever.
“Late in the game, I scooped up an ordinary ground ball and threw it over to the pitcher, covering first base. It was the same kind of play I had made several hundred times in my big league career, just a routine play. But Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, and the pitcher all got around me, slapped me on the back, and said, “Great Going, Lou” “Nice Stop Big Boy.” They meant it to be kind, but it hurt worst than any balling out I ever received in baseball. They were saying “Great Stop” because I had fielded a grounder. I decided then and there, I would ask McCarthy to take me out of the lineup.”
On May 2nd, 1939, Gehrig informed manager Joe McCarthy that he was benching himself for the “good of the team.” Gehrig was replaced by Ellsworth “Babe” Dahlgren at first base. Out of respect for the great Yankee first basemen, the Tigers PA announcer at Briggs Stadium told the crowd, “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 Tigers’ fans gave Gehrig a standing ovation while he sat on the bench with tears forming in his eyes. Lou would remain as the Captain of the Yankees for the rest of the season, but he never played in another Major League game.
Now we all know how it goes from there. Gehrig retires in June of ’39 and the Yankees have Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium on July 4th, 1939. Yankee greats from past and present, as well as dignitaries and politicians came to wish Lou all the best in his fight against an unknown enemy. They presented him with awards and plaques, poor Lou was so weak from the disease that he couldn’t even hold them. After all the fanfare and well wishes were delivered, Gehrig stepped up to the microphone and delivered one of the most memorable and moving speeches to date. The highlight of it being:
Following the speech, Gehrig was embraced in a bear hug from his old teammate Babe Ruth, a man who was not far from answering his own roll call in the sky.
Lou Gehrig died less than two years after making that speech at Yankee Stadium from complications stemming from ALS. He died on June 2nd, 1941; sixteen years to the date that he took Wally Pipp’s position in the lineup.
The picture at the start of this post was snapped the day he took himself out of the starting lineup for the first time since 1925. It was a move that ended his consecutive games played streak at 2130, a record that would stand until 1995 when it was broken by Cal Ripken Jr. The picture shows Gehrig gazing out at the field from the steps of the dugout, probably contemplating what his next move was going to be.
Line-Up For Yesterday
G is for Gehrig,
The Pride of the Stadium;
His Record Pure Gold,
His Courage, Pure Radium.
– Ogden Nash (1949)