Remembering Lou Gehrig: ‘Pride of the Yankees’
Birth name: Ludwig Heinrich Gehrig or Henry Louis Gehrig
Nickname: The Iron Horse
Team: New York Yankees
Birth date: June 19, 1903 in New York City
Death date: June 2, 1941 in Riverdale, N.Y.
Burial location: Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y.
Did you know?: In early 1925, the Yankees offered to trade Gehrig to the Boston Red Sox for first baseman Phil Todt to repay Boston for the blockbuster Babe Ruth trade a few years earlier. The Red Sox turned the Yankees down.
“Let me tell you about heroes. No front-page scandals, no spotlight, but a guy who does his job and nothing else. He lives for his job and 50 million other people get a lot of fun watching him do something better than anybody else ever did it before”
— Walter Brennan in the role of sports writer Sam Blake in the 1942 film, “Pride of the Yankees.”
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Any true baseball fan has heard of Lou Gehrig … knows he was a Hall of Fame first baseman for the New York Yankees … and that the “Iron Horse” set a record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games between 1925 and 1939 that stood for some six decades before Cal Ripken Jr. broke it in 1995.
You don’t even have to be a fan to have heard about “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” — Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS — an incurable fatal neuromuscular disease that approximately 30,000 people in the U.S. live with today.
I’d like to share some information about the player — who was born June 19, 1903 — and man who became legend:
■ He hit for a .340 career average and his 493 career home runs were the most by any first baseman in history until Mark McGwire cracked the 500 barrier. He was also agile enough to steal home 15 times during his career.
■ He is the only player to drive in more than 500 runs during a span of three seasons (174 RBIs in 1930, an American League record 184 in 1931 and 151 in 1932) and set the record for most career grand-slams with 23.
■ In 1927, Babe Ruth hit his single-season record 60 home runs and Gehrig hit 47, more than anyone other than Ruth had ever hit. Together they out-homered every team in baseball except one.
■ On June 3, 1932, Gehrig became the fist American League player to hit four home runs in a game, and only a great catch by Al Simmons kept Gehrig from hitting his fifth.
■ The 6-foot, 200-pound Gehrig won the Triple Crown in 1934 when he led the American League with his .363 batting average, 49 home runs 165 RBIs.
Those are just statistics, and trivia is not the reason Lou Gehrig became legend. It’s not the reason his No. 4 became the first jersey number in American professional sports to be retired or that he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939, the same year he was forced his retirement. Or that in 1955 his Columbia University fraternity Phi Delta Theta established the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, awarded annually to the Major League player who best exemplifies Gehrig’s character and attitude. Or that the Rhode Island chapter of the ALS Association in 2000 established “The Spirit of Lou Gehrig Award,” which honors community leaders who have displayed compassion and commitment to those who suffer from ALS.
Consider Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 games, for instance. When Gehrig’s hands were X-rayed later in his career, doctors discovered 17 different fractures that had healed while he continued to play. He played through various other ailments, including severe back pain.
It’s more than that, though.
Gehrig was not one to charge the mound if he was hit by a pitch. One-time teammate Tommy Heinrich said of Gehrig, “When he got knocked down, he took it. Lou treated it like ‘Sooner or later you’ll have to throw the ball over the plate, and when you do, I’ll cream you.’ That’s the type of guy he was.”
Baseball historian Fred Lieb once asked about playing in the “shadow” of home run king Babe Ruth. Gehrig’s answered, simply, “It’s a pretty big shadow. It gives me lots of room to spread myself.”
Perhaps there is no better example than his “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, later featured in “Pride of the Yankees,” when he 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 this earth.”
Now, listen to the conclusion of that speech: “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 may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
You see, Lou Gehrig was a man who loved his job, and loved his fans.
Editor’s note: This Dave Price column originally published on Feb. 10, 2006 in the Grass Valley Union, the R-C’s sister newspaper in Grass Valley, Calif. Oh, and today marks the start on another Major League season with three games, with the Yankees scheduled to play the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.