[Editor’s note: Ron Knecht’s column today takes the form of a story for his 12-year-old daughter Karyn.]
Karyn, it’s the Fourth of July, so time for another Daddy story about baseball (of course) and a great American (also of course). I’ve told you about Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson and others. Today, it’s Lou Gehrig, The Iron Horse.
He was born in 1903 in New York City to poor German immigrants, the only one of their four children to survive infancy. His dad was a poor role model, but his mom more than made up for it. Lou often helped her work as a maid, and all his life he was modest, even shy, hard-working and decent, despite being bright, handsome and athletically gifted.
She made sure he went to college, and he attended Columbia (as your gran’mom Christena later did), on a football scholarship and studying engineering. But he really starred at baseball, as a pitcher and hitter. In 1923, he signed a bonus contract with the New York Yankees, then the best team in baseball, and he was called up to the club from the minor leagues later that year, as a power-hitting first-baseman.
Although he did well as a pinch-hitter, he didn’t crack the regular starting line-up until Wally Pipp, who had been plagued with headaches, got a day off to rest in 1925. Lou went in – and stayed for the next 14 years. His 2,130 consecutive games streak – playing through illness, injury and whatever else – was long considered one of the most revered and unbreakable records in baseball until the great Cal Ripken finally passed it in 1995.
His nickname, “The Iron Horse”, reflected his courage, determination and working-man reliability. Late in his career, doctors spotted in X-rays of his hands numerous fractures that were previously unknown because he played as they healed.
And play he did! His records and feats are far too numerous to catalog here, but suffice it to say he was statistically the second-best hitter in the game through his time and he remains number three all-time even today. For example, five times he amassed 400 total bases in a season, something only 11 other players did once, one twice and another three times. Over his career, he averaged 147 runs batted in per year, and no other player thereafter reached that total for even one season until 38 years after he retired.
But what made things really interesting was that he spent most of his career batting in the line-up behind the greatest player ever, Babe Ruth. Ruth was Gehrig’s opposite, colorful, boisterous and wild – larger than life – while Gehrig was quiet, unassuming and a hard working family man. They were the greatest duo in a line-up ever.
With Ruth’s decline and retirement, Gehrig became the best in the game in the mid-1930s and was joined by another great, Joe DiMaggio in 1936. They were nearly as good as Ruth and Gehrig, and once again the other man was more colorful and famous. That was fine by Gehrig; he was happy to be quietly just the best player.
In 1938, Gehrig’s performance began to slip, and by early 1939, it was apparent that he suffered severe physical maladies that completely sapped his strength. On May 2, he took himself out of the line-up and later went to the Mayo Clinic for medical tests. Doctors diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS, now known also as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” – and his career was done.
He was so loved by fans everywhere – for his character as much as his heroism on the field – that the Yankees held a Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day celebration between games of a doubleheader on July 4. It was his finest moment.
After the presentations, he stepped to the microphone and said, “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He said he felt lucky to have played for 17 years with the love and support of the fans and for the privilege of associating with his team’s players and management, and even his opponents. He thanked the groundskeepers and ushers, and above all his mother, father, mother-in-law and wife. “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.”
On June 2, 1941, sixteen years to the day after he replaced Wally Pipp, he died. All America wept.