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The sport of baseball has produced some legendary, iconic players since its inception in the late 1800s. However, there is one particular legend that stands out from the rest: Lou Gehrig. Lou Gehrig was one of baseball’s greats, had a record setting career and a life claimed by a disease bearing his name. When Lou benched himself in 1939, nobody, including himself, imagined he would be dead in just two short years.
Lou Gehrig was born June 19, 1903 to Heinrich and Christina Gehrig, German immigrants. They made their home in Yorkville, in the Upper East Side of New York City and eventually moved to upper Manhattan when Lou was four. Shortly after settling in their new home, Lou received his first baseball glove, a catcher’s mitt, for Christmas at the age of five. At the park across the street from the Gehrig home, Lou would play baseball with the older children in the neighborhood. Even though Lou was only six, he was comparable in size to the other children as he was big and strong; a very husky fellow but very shy. Like the older children, Lou would arise at five each morning and play baseball in the park until it was time to go to school. In this park is where it began for Lou Gehrig (Hubler, 1941).
By the time Lou entered Commerce High School he was a big, burly young man weighing nearly two hundred pounds with extremely broad shoulders. In the park, he could hit a baseball further than anyone around. However, Lou did not participate in baseball as a school sport; he considered himself an ordinary neighborhood sandlot player. At some point during Lou’s high school career, classmates told his teacher about how far he could hit a baseball. After hearing this information, the teacher demanded Lou show up at one of the scheduled high school baseball games. Lou did show up, heard all of the cheering, turned around, and went directly home. Lou was so terrified that he literally ran away from his first high school baseball game. The next day his teacher demanded that Lou show up for the next game and threatening a failing grade if he did not show up. Lou Gehrig was forever grateful for the teacher’s threat that day (Macht, 1993).
Lou’s parents wanted him to attend college even though he wanted to work and earn money for the family. Fortunately, Christina worked for a fraternity house at Columbia University managed by the university’s athletic director. Because of this working relationship and a tremendous amount of studying, Columbia offered Lou an athletic scholarship and he accepted. Before the baseball season started, someone had advised Lou to go to Connecticut to play for Eastern League, a professional team, to gain more experience and he would be paid to play. While playing for the Eastern League, the Columbia University baseball coach discovered that Lou was playing professionally and therefore breaching his contract with Columbia. Lou was not allowed to play his entire freshman year as a consequence of breaching his contract (Macht, 1993).
By Lou’s sophomore year at Columbia, his fielding was erratic but his hitting improved with much practice. He was dangerous and extremely wild as a pitcher and terrible in the outfield. Finally the manager placed Lou at first base where he needed only to catch direct throws or scoop up ground balls. His hitting continued to evolve and he was hitting the ball more than 420 feet. During this time at Columbia, professional league teams were taking notice of Lou and making offers. It was not until his mother fell ill that he accepted a $1500 bonus to join the New York Yankees and dropped out of Columbia University after two years (Hubler, 1941).
The new Yankee immediately became frustrated with his newfound job. He practiced with the team, watched the other players, worked out in the bullpen and everything in between. However, he never played in a game. Finally, after several weeks of warming the bench, the Yankees manager called on Lou to pinch-hit for the pitcher during a game at Washington. He struck out. A few days later, during at game with St. Louis, Lou was sent to the plate again and hit a line drive for a double. The Yankee’s manager knew that Lou needed more playing exerpeience and decided to send him to Hartford, Connecticut, to play with the Hartford Club (Macht, 1993). Lou’s time in Hartford proved to be beneficial. In the short time he was there, he hit 69 home runs in 59 games. In September, the Yankee’s first baseman injured his ankle. The Yankees immediately sent for Lou to take injured first baseman’s place. Lou was finally in the Yankee’s line-up.
The Yankees went on to win the pennant that season and for the third year in a row they were in the World Series. However, Lou had joined the Yankee line-up too late in the season. He was not eligible to play in the Series unless the opposing team’s manager would allow him to do so. Unfortunately, the manager of the opposition refused the request and Lou warmed the bench as he watched his team win the World Series for the first time.
The 1927 season brought baseballs greatest team: The New York Yankees. The first six batters in the Yankee’s order made up Murderer’s Row with Babe Ruth in the 3rd position and Lou in the 4th or “clean-up” position. According to The 1927 NY Yankees (2011) the Yankees were “Graced with the batting phenomenon pair of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig” (1927-Murderers’ Row, para. 2). Even though Babe Ruth had the most home runs during the 1927 season, Lou had the highest batting average of anyone on the famed Murderer’s Row. The Yankees went on to win 110 games and swept the Pirates in the World Series.
The 1927 season also brought somewhat of a slugfest between Lou and the Babe. The fest was never anything but friendly between the two as they cheered each other on through the season. This slugfest was a brutal neck-and-neck, back-and-forth home run race. At times the two of them (sometimes referred to as the “Twins”) tied in home run hits, times when the Babe was ahead of Lou and other times when Lou was ahead of the Babe. This activity continued for nearly the entire 1927 season. During the last month of the season, Lou could not keep up with the Babe and eventually he fell behind him in the home run race. Lou ended the season with 47 home runs.
Lou Gehrig had an astounding career with many achievements and records during his time with the New York Yankees. He played 2,130 consecutive games with the Yankees between the years of 1925 and 1939. This record stood for 56 years until it was broken in 1995. He became the first American League player to hit four homeruns in one game, won the Triple Crown in 1934 and inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 (CMG Worldwide, 2003).
Lou currently holds several records in the world of baseball including Major League and team records for the New York Yankees. First, Major League records currently held by Lou Gehrig are four home run hits in one game, most grand slams (23) in a career, most runs batted in by a lefthander in one season, most seasons with 100+ runs batted in consecutively and most seasons with 150+ runs batted in consecutively (Baseball Almanac, Inc 2000-2011).
Additionally, the current New York Yankees team records held by Lou include grand slams (23), hits resulting in double bases (534), hits resulting in triple bases (163), and runs batted in (1,995). Lou also holds several of the number two spots in the Yankees record books including second highest batting average, hits, home runs by a lefthander, on base percentage, runs scored, slugging average, and total bases (Baseball Almanac, Inc. 2000-2011). To say that Lou Gehrig had a good career with the Yankees is an understatement.
The 1938 season brought some changes for Lou Gehrig. He was off to a slow start at the beginning and was not hitting like usual. By summertime several players from other teams were noticing that Lou was walking and running like an old man. It was also noted by some pitchers that Lou’s reflexes seemed to be slow, and although he was swinging the bat as hard as he always had, the balls were not going nearly as far. By the end of the season his batting average was down to .295. Lou had higher expectations of himself considering his .351 average the season before (Macht, 1993).
In early 1939 Lou was determined to bounce back for the upcoming season but he was developing more trouble physically. He had fallen while fishing, had problems stepping off curbs, and small items would fall out of his hands. Finally, even thou Lou would not admit something was seriously wrong, in June he visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he underwent numerous tests. On June 19, 1939, his 36th birthday, his doctor gave him the diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that attacks the nerve cells that control voluntary muscles (Hubler, 1941). Today this disease is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Lou benched himself May 2, 1939, just days prior to his diagnosis and never played for the Yankees again. By the spring of 1941 Lou was bedridden and started to have trouble breathing. Eleanor and her mother took care of Lou around the clock. By this time he could not swallow anything other than pureed food. On Monday, June 2, 17 days before his 38th birthday and exactly 16 years to the day he took over first base for the New York Yankees, Lou Gehrig passed way in his New York home with his family by his side including his devoted dog, Yankee (Macht, 1993).
Lou Gehrig is a legend; a baseball icon. He was known as a decent, humble, shy and courageous man on and off the baseball field. He set many records during his career and faced his debilitating disease with nothing but courage. There will never be a number four Yankee’s jersey to grace a baseball field again because that number was for the one and only: Lou Gehrig.