Lou Gehrig was the greatest first baseman ever and a key component in the Yankee legend. Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played perfectly reflected his steady, dependable character. Because he was also handsome, a native New Yorker, and eventually a tragic figure, he became as glamorous as a retiring “mama’s boy” could be.
Born in a German neighborhood, Gehrig began his legendary career at Columbia University. Freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity play, but in his sophomore season Gehrig set multiple school records, most notably season marks of seven HR, a .444 batting average, and a .937 slugging average. Also a pitcher, he still holds the Columbia record for strikeouts in a game, fanning 17 Williams batters in a game he lost. It is rumored that Columbia coach Andy Coakley, a former major leaguer, was paid $500 by the Yankees to convince the youngster to sign with the Yankees. By the way, although Gehrig did hit some prodigious shots at Columbia, he never hit one through a window in the athletic office in Low Library, as depicted in The Pride of the Yankees – nobody could.
Gehrig played two seasons with Hartford of the Eastern League and debuted in the majors four days short of his 20th birthday. He had brief but successful stints with the Yankees in 1923 and 1924. He started his famous streak on May 31, 1925, pinch hitting for Pee Wee Wanninger. (Earlier that year, Wanninger had replaced Everett Scott at shortstop, breaking Scott’s much-remarked-upon string of 1,307 consecutive games.) The next day, regular first baseman Wally Pipp sat out a game with a headache, and Gehrig started in his place. The team was in seventh place at the time, and Babe Ruth was sick, so some experimentation was in order. Hindsight makes it seem as though the rookie then monopolized the position, but in fact Gehrig’s position was still somewhat tenuous. He was pinch hit for three times that month, and didn’t start on July 5, although he came into the game later. Gehrig had a good season, certainly, hitting .295 with 20 HR and 68 RBI in 126 games. But it was in 1927, when he was moved to the cleanup spot and had Bob Meusel protecting him in the order that became known as Murderer’s Row, that Gehrig put up big numbers for the first time. He won the MVP award (then given by the league and not awarded to repeat winners) and led the AL with 175 RBI, 52 doubles, and 447 total bases. He finished behind Ruth with 47 HR, 149 runs, a .765 slugging average, and 109 walks. His .373 batting average also ranked second.
Gehrig was overshadowed by Ruth for as long as Ruth was a Yankee. Gehrig was great, Gehrig was consistent, Gehrig was a role model – but Ruth was larger than life. However, it is Gehrig who owns the AL season record for RBI, with 184 in 1931, and who hit a ML-record 23 grand slams lifetime. Gehrig and Rocky Colavito are the only AL players to hit four homers in a nine-inning game, and Gehrig hit for the cycle twice; Ruth never did. He had at least 100 RBI and 100 runs every full season of his career, 13 straight years, and led the AL five times in RBI and four times in runs. In fact, he topped 150 RBI seven times, also a ML record, and is third all-time on the RBI list. His .632 slugging average also ranks third, and when he retired, only Ruth had hit more home runs.
Ruth pursued media attention and made great copy, but Gehrig led a quiet married life. For a while the two were friends, but a coolness developed between them, variously ascribed to Ruth making a pass at a female friend of Gehrig’s or making a derogatory comment about Mom Gehrig, whom Lou always worshiped. Nonetheless, Ruth and Gehrig had a cordial professional relationship until Ruth left the team after the 1934 season. In 1931, the year they tied for the AL HR lead, Gehrig lost a home run passing Ruth on the bases.
Ruth and Gehrig carried the Yankees, but there were some years when they just weren’t enough. Connie Mack‘s Athletics won three straight years, 1929-31, before the Yankees came back in 1932 for another World Championship. In the following seasons, it became clear that Ruth was fading. In their last year together, 1934, Gehrig won the Triple Crown with 49 HR, 165 RBI, and a .363 BA; in 1935 he dropped off to .329 with 30 HR and 119 RBI. He was also bothered more and more by lumbago; in 1934 he had suffered an attack on the field and had to be carried off. He was quite aware of his consecutive games streak, as were manager Joe McCarthy and the writers. The next day he was penciled in the lineup as the leadoff hitter, listed at shortstop. Hardly able to stand, he singled, and Red Rolfe pinch ran for him and finished the game at shortstop. He kept his string going through the years despite a broken thumb, a broken toe, back spasms, and lumbago, stoically, in fact proudly, playing through the pain.
The arrival of Joe DiMaggio in 1936 made enough of a difference that Gehrig had his last two great seasons in 1936 and 1937 as the Yankees won World Championships. The Giants managed something no other team had done since 1926: they won a World Series game from the Yankees. But Gehrig homered in close contests in Games Three and Four. He was always a good World Series hitter, with 10 HR lifetime, including a record-setting four in the four-game 1928 WS.
The Yankees repeated in 1938, but Gehrig dropped below .300 for the first time since his rookie season. In 1939 he was obviously enfeebled, and on May 2 he took himself out of the lineup. He was hitting just .143, and was quite clumsy afield. Many players were afraid he would injure himself, but nobody would suggest that he sit down, not even manager McCarthy. Gehrig had to take the initiative himself. He never played again, and although, in his capacity as team captain, he continued to carry the lineup card out every day, eventually even that proved more than he could handle. He was diagnosed as having a rare, almost unknown, and incurable disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, forever after known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was not announced that he was doomed, although many suspected it and Gehrig knew. On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Day was held at Yankee Stadium. It may be the most famous ceremony in baseball history, with Gehrig’s assertion that “today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” an unforgettable statement. The waiting period for the new Hall of Fame was waived, and he was admitted the year it opened, in 1939. He spent his last two years of life working for New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and died on June 2, 1941.