Lou Gehrig was a lot like Cal Ripken Jr. Gehrig, too, was a
consummate team player, quiet and self-effacing, not given to a
lot of noise or flash as he went about his job of playing
baseball brilliantly, day in and day out. Gehrig, too, played
for only one big league team in his career. Gehrig, too, was
bigger and stronger than most of his contemporaries; at just a
shade over six feet, he wasn't as tall as the 6'4" Ripken, but
he was powerfully built, with a broad back and massive legs.
Like Ripken, Gehrig shrugged off injuries. Like Ripken, he
didn't get into trouble on or off the field. Like Ripken, Gehrig
was a manager's dream.
This is an article from the Sept. 15, 1995 issue
Born June 19, 1903, to a family of poor German immigrants in the
melting pot of New York City, Gehrig was a city boy who played
football and baseball on the streets, swam in the Hudson River
and knew his way around local pool halls. His mother, Christina,
came to America in 1899 at age 18. A year later she married a
33-year-old metalworker named Heinrich Gehrig, who had come over
a dozen years earlier. They had four children, but only one
survived infancy: the one they named Heinrich Ludwig and called
Louis (Gehrig's name was later Americanized to Henry Louis).
The Gehrigs were poor because Heinrich had trouble holding a
job. Christina, a square, strong young woman, kept the small
family afloat by working as a cook and a housemaid around their
Washington Heights neighborhood and by taking in laundry. She
was vigorous and forceful and devoted to her son. The boy
responded to her affection, running errands for her and
delivering laundry. Like his mother, Lou was dependable, had a
strong sense of duty and a compulsion to work hard. Unlike Babe
Ruth, who would precede him in the Yankee batting order and in
baseball lore, young Lou never got into trouble, never played
hooky, never even missed a day of school.
Gehrig loved all sports: football, baseball, soccer, swimming,
ice skating, gymnastics (his father used to take him to the
local German turnverein, or gym club). He was a big kid, yet he
could run surprisingly fast, and he had great eye-hand
coordination, which helped him excel at pastimes that demanded
precision, such as marbles, billiards and, of course, hitting a
During Lou's childhood years, most families at the Gehrigs'
economic level sent their sons to work as soon as they finished
eighth grade. But Christina insisted that Lou stay in school,
and in 1917, at age 14, he entered the High School of Commerce.
There, his mother felt, he could better prepare for a career as
an accountant or a bookkeeper. Commerce High did turn out to be
Gehrig's gateway to a successful and lucrative future, although
not in the way his mother imagined.
The boy's baby fat developed into massive muscle, and by the
time he was a junior at Commerce, Gehrig was a star on both the
baseball and football teams. In the spring of 1920 the Commerce
baseball squad, the city's premier high school team, was invited
to play Lane Tech, Chicago's best, in a game at Wrigley Field.
Ten thousand fans were in the stands, and reporters and
photographers from both cities were on hand. It was a wild,
high-scoring game, but Gehrig did not have a hit when he came to
bat in the ninth inning with Commerce holding a slim lead, 8-6,
and the bases full. With one swing Gehrig broke the game wide
open, hitting a tremendous home run over the rightfield fence.
That year was also Babe Ruth's first with the Yankees, and the
Babe's roaring pursuit of the home run record he had set a year
earlier with the Red Sox was drawing record crowds and making
America home run conscious. The mammoth homer hit in Wrigley
Field by a 16-year-old boy drew widespread attention. "It was a
blow of which any big leaguer would have been proud," according
to one Chicago Tribune writer. The New York Times declared, "The
real Babe Ruth never poled one more thrilling."
By this time Gehrig's mother and father had found work at a
fraternity house at nearby Columbia University. As the story
goes, in the fall of 1920 Commerce played a football game on
the campus, and the gregarious Mrs. Gehrig urged a college
official she knew to watch her son display his talents. The
official was so impressed by the youngster's size, strength and
all-around ability--Gehrig played halfback and defensive line
and also punted--that he helped Gehrig secure a football
scholarship to Columbia for the following fall.
But before Gehrig could take advantage of the scholarship, he
almost lost it. A scout from John McGraw's New York Giants
offered him a contract to play minor league baseball that summer
in Hartford. Gehrig asked if playing professional ball in the
summer would make him ineligible to play sports at Columbia.
"No," the scout told him, "all the college guys do it. You play
under an assumed name." The innocent Gehrig went along with the
idea and played a dozen games for Hartford under the name Lou
Lewis before someone at Columbia learned what he was doing.
Appalled at the prospect of losing a prized recruit, a Columbia
coach made a hurried trip to Hartford, and a chastened Lou Lewis
accompanied him back to New York, his brief pro career aborted.
Gehrig retained his scholarship, and after a year of probation
as a Columbia freshman, he starred as a sophomore in both
baseball and football. In the spring of 1923, with a scout from
the Yankees watching (the Giants were interested too, but Gehrig
wanted nothing to do with them after the Lou Lewis episode),
Gehrig hit two monstrous home runs. When he returned to New
York, the scout told general manager Ed Barrow, "I think I've
just seen another Babe Ruth." The Yankees offered the
20-year-old Gehrig a $2,000 salary for the remainder of the
season, plus a $1,500 signing bonus. That was a huge sum of
money for a poor family in a day when a college graduate might
draw a starting salary of $18 a week. Gehrig signed, left
Columbia at the end of his sophomore year and joined the Yankees
in June. He appeared in a handful of games with them in 1923 and
1924 but spent most of those two seasons in the minors before
joining the big club for good in 1925.
That was the year Gehrig's famous streak began. He sat on the
bench for the first six weeks of the season, playing only
occasionally as a pinch hitter or a late-inning defensive
replacement. Gehrig had appeared in only 11 games when he
pinch-hit once more on June 1; he would never pinch-hit again.
He was in the starting lineup at first base the next day, and
that's where he stayed for the next 14 years.
Baseball myth has it that Wally Pipp, the Yankees' regular first
baseman since 1915, was suffering from a headache before the
game on June 2 and that manager Miller Huggins told him to take
the day off. It is said that Huggins inserted young Gehrig in
Pipp's place, and the rookie played so well that Wally never got
his job back.
What actually happened is not quite as rueful. The Yankees were
in a bad slump in the spring of 1925. Ruth had undergone
abdominal surgery during spring training and missed the first
six weeks of the season. By June 1 the team had lost five
straight and was only half a game out of last place. Pipp was
hitting .244, and others were playing just as poorly.
Huggins decided to shake up his lineup, a radical move in an era
when most clubs played the same men at the same positions in the
same batting order day after day, week after week. The manager
benched the 32-year-old Pipp, along with a few other veterans,
and replaced him with Gehrig. In his first game as a regular,
Gehrig stroked hits in his first three at bats. By July 4 he was
batting .328, and the job was clearly his to keep. Although he
slipped to .295 by the end of the season, Gehrig finished with
20 home runs, fifth best in the league. Pipp was sold to
Cincinnati in the off-season.
Pipp himself contributed to the legend of the headache, or
perhaps even created it. On July 2, exactly a month after Gehrig
took his place, Pipp was hit on the head by a pitch in batting
practice. At first he seemed to be badly hurt, but he recovered
and in a few days was his old self again. Thirty years later,
however, when Pipp reminisced about the old days, the date of
the beaning was somehow moved back a month, and the legend of
the headache's giving Gehrig the job was born. The story was
picked up and repeated so often that decades later, marginal
ballplayers with minor injuries would insist on staying in the
lineup because they didn't want to be "Wally Pipped."
In 1926, his first full season, Gehrig continued his solid play,
and New York rebounded to win the pennant. The '27 Yankees,
arguably the greatest team of all time, featured Gehrig's
emergence as a superstar. This was the year that Ruth, in his
13th full season, hit 60 home runs. To everyone's amazement,
Gehrig, who would win his first American League MVP award,
matched the Babe homer for homer from April to September. In
fact, on Sept. 6 the two were tied at 44. Gehrig slowed down and
finished the year with 47--still more home runs in a single
season than anyone other than Ruth had ever hit--while the Babe
went on his memorable season-ending tear, banging out 17 in
September alone to reach 60.
Together, Ruth, playing rightfield and batting third, and
Gehrig, at first base and hitting fourth, were utterly fabulous
in 1927. No team before or since has had a pair of hitters to
match them. In 1961, when Yankee Roger Maris hit 61 homers to
break Ruth's record, much was made of the fact that Maris and
teammate Mickey Mantle, who had 54, together hit more home runs
than Ruth and Gehrig had in 1927. But that was the only category
in which the Maris-Mantle duo was superior. Gehrig hit .373 with
a then major league record 175 RBIs--no one else in the league
except Ruth had more than 120--and 149 runs, second in the majors
to Ruth. The Babe hit .356 with 165 RBIs and 158 runs. Maris's
numbers were .269, 142, 132, and Mantle's were .317, 128, 132.
Ruth and Gehrig also led the M&M duo in doubles (81-32), triples
(26-10), extra-base hits (214-157) and total bases (1,078-876).
Gehrig was now firmly established as Ruth's home run partner,
albeit the junior partner, and the pattern held for years. He
finished second to Ruth in homers the next three seasons, hit 46
to tie Ruth in 1931 and stayed close behind him in '32 and '33.
Not until 1934, Ruth's final season with the Yankees, did Gehrig
outslug the Babe and win a home run championship by himself,
with 49. He matched that total two years later to win the home
run crown again. He also drove in 184 runs in '31 to break his
'27 record, hit four home runs in one game--something Ruth never
did--in '32 and in August 1933 notched the longest
consecutive-game streak in baseball history when he passed
Everett Scott's mark of 1,307.
I was 11 years old that summer, an avid baseball fan growing up
in a suburb of New York City, only 10 miles or so from Yankee
Stadium. Among us boys Gehrig was nearly as big a name as Ruth
because Lou was in his prime and the Babe was fading. That year
the Goudey Gum Company of Boston began putting baseball cards in
their packets of bubble gum. In 1933 Ruth's card was the one we
all wanted most. But by the next year, when the Babe was going
through the motions during his last season with the Yankees,
Gehrig's card became the most coveted.
Although some of his baseball achievements were included on his
card, the consecutive-game record that Gehrig set in 1933 was
not even mentioned. That seems odd today, considering the
attention Ripken's streak has generated, but back then the
streak didn't seem all that significant. The sports pages
mentioned it now and then and called Lou the Iron Horse for his
nonstop strength and stamina, but they didn't dwell on it. The
streak was just part of the overall picture, like Gehrig's broad
back and powerful legs.
We boys were more interested in Gehrig's batting average, his
home runs and his runs batted in, and in 1934 our devotion was
rewarded: Gehrig went where even the Babe had never gone before,
leading the league in all three categories to win the Triple
That same summer his iron-man streak almost came to an end.
During his 14-year run Gehrig suffered many minor injuries and
ailments, and he left games before they were finished more than
40 times. He'd been beaned a couple of times, he'd fouled
pitches off his big toe, he'd had terrible colds. X-rays
revealed that over the years he had fractured small bones in his
hands and fingers 17 times. Most were small breaks that were
ignored and left to heal by themselves; others were bandaged or
strapped so that Gehrig could keep on playing. Teammates
remembered him wincing when he caught balls at first base after
breaking a finger on his glove hand. Yet none of these aches and
pains had ever been disabling enough too keep him from playing
in the next game on the schedule.
But in 1934 the streak twice came perilously close to being
snapped. The first crisis occurred at the end of June. The
Yankees were to play in Washington, D.C., on a Thursday; take a
train 180 miles south to Norfolk, Va., for an exhibition game
against one of their farm teams on Friday; and then return to
Washington for another game on Saturday. In the first inning of
the game in Norfolk, Gehrig hit a home run. In his next turn at
bat he was hit on the head by a pitch. Players did not wear
batting helmets in those days, and Gehrig fell unconscious to
the ground, where he lay motionless for five minutes. When he
came to, he was helped off the field and back to the Yankees'
hotel. Reports said Gehrig had suffered a concussion, had a huge
bump on his head and would be X-rayed when the team returned to
Washington. Mentioned almost in passing was the possibility that
he would not play against the Senators the next day and that his
streak would come to an end.
Gehrig was quoted as saying that he would be all right and that
he would be ready to play, and--unbelievably--he was. Still
sporting a big bump on his head (he had to wear an oversized
cap), he smashed triples in each of his first three at bats,
tying a major league record for consecutive three-baggers. But a
rainstorm wiped out the game before the required five innings
Two weeks later, in Detroit, Gehrig was suffering with nagging
pain in his back that he thought was caused by a cold. He
started the game and singled his first time up. As he ran toward
first base, his back suddenly went out completely, and, in great
pain, he was barely able to hobble to the bag. He refused a
pinch runner, struggled along the base paths and insisted on
taking his position at first base in the bottom half of the
inning. Once there, he found he was unable to move and
reluctantly left the field.
The pain did not let up all afternoon and night, and the next
day it was just as excruciating. Gehrig went to the ballpark
anyway. It was obvious he couldn't play a full game, but to keep
his streak alive he was put in the lineup as "Gehrig, SS,"
batting in the leadoff spot instead of his customary cleanup
position. In the top of the first inning he limped painfully to
the plate, lifted a single over the infield, lurched down the
line to first base, gave way to a pinch runner, who stayed in
the game at shortstop, and went back to the hotel.
The charade--really the only time Gehrig's streak was
fudged--was applauded as a legitimate and courageous way to keep
the streak alive. Whether the admiration would have continued if
Gehrig and the Yankees had tried the ploy again is moot, because
the next day Gehrig miraculously appeared completely healthy
again. Back in the cleanup spot, he hit three doubles and a
single in four at bats.
Gehrig maintained his high level of play through 1937. As with
Ripken, it was not so much that he played so many games in a row
that was admirable; it was that he played so many so well. He
was not a brilliant fielder, but he was a good one, and at the
plate he was devastating. From 1927 through 1937 he was either
first or second in home runs seven times; first or second in
RBIs nine times; and first, second or third in runs scored nine
times. His batting average was among the top three in the league
seven times and lower than sixth only once. His slugging average
was among the top four for 12 straight years.
Gehrig's consistency was astonishing. His second Most Valuable
Player award came in 1936, nine years after his first. Many of
his contemporaries felt he should have won in 1934 as well, when
the MVP went to Detroit player-manager Mickey Cochrane, who led
the Tigers to the pennant.
Oddly, for all the warmth he projected in photographs--he was a
handsome man with a warm, wonderful smile--Gehrig was not easy
to get to know personally. He was uncomfortable socially. He was
a mama's boy who often said in his early years with the Yankees
that his mother was his best girl. He did make strong, lasting
friendships, but they came slowly, developing over long periods
of time. Unlike Ruth or Mantle, each of whom cheerfully welcomed
rookies to the Yankees, Gehrig did not. He was more like Joe
DiMaggio: reserved, aloof, hard to get close to. He was
penurious, too, except toward his parents, and he was famous
among teammates and sportswriters for the small tips he left. He
had a great sense of probity, of what he considered proper
behavior, and he avoided the social ramble that Ruth and other
He didn't marry until 1933, when he was 30, and that required a
wrenching separation from his parents, particularly his mother,
who did not like the idea of her beloved son's leaving her for
another woman. Gehrig and his wife, Eleanor, never had children.
Gehrig's edgy personality eventually cost him his friendship
with Ruth. The Babe was a 10-year veteran when Gehrig broke into
the Yankee lineup in 1925, but Ruth, who called him Buster, took
the younger player fishing, praised his home run hitting, shared
the spotlight with him and got to be good friends with Gehrig's
parents. After their monumental 1927 season Ruth had Gehrig join
him on a two-team barnstorming trip, during which the "Bustin'
Babes" played the "Larrupin' Lous." Ruth claimed--and he was
probably right--that Gehrig made more money on the tour than he
was paid by the Yankees. But Gehrig was put off by Ruth's
expansive, impulsive, outspoken personality and drew away from
the Babe. Thoughtless remarks in 1934 by Gehrig's mother
heightened the conflict, and after that the two barely spoke.
In the spring of 1938, when Gehrig was still only 34, his level
of play fell off sharply. He started the season poorly and was
batting only .132 at the end of April, with no home runs and
just three runs batted in. The 23-year-old DiMaggio took over
Gehrig's cleanup spot, and Gehrig was dropped to fifth. His
hitting picked up in May and June but sagged again in July. On
Aug. 6 he was batting only .274, an embarrassingly low figure
for a star player in a high-average era.
Gehrig revived then and for three weeks or so whacked the ball
like the Larrupin' Lou of old, batting .400 over a stretch of 60
at bats and driving in 23 runs. On Sept. 9, after he got four
hits in four at bats in a game in which only one other Yankee
was able to get a base hit, Gehrig's average had risen 30
points, to .304; it was the first time he had been above .300
But then it stopped. Gehrig slumped badly again over the last
three weeks of the season and finished the year at .295, 56
points below his average of the previous year and the first time
he had batted under .300 since 1925.
He had 114 RBIs and 29 home runs for the season, highly
respectable figures, but for the first time in his big league
career he was not among the top five hitters in any offensive
category. The Yankees won the pennant and their third straight
World Series, but in the postseason Gehrig had only four
singles, no extra-base hits and not one RBI.
Fans and sportswriters wondered if the slump was just an off
year for Gehrig, one of those inexplicable season-long drop-offs
that afflict players now and then. Or, they speculated, had
Gehrig, who had turned 35 in June, suddenly caved in from the
pressure of playing every day for 14 years?
No one yet knew the terrible truth, but Gehrig's physical
decline became more evident in the off-season, and in spring
training the next year it became glaringly obvious. Gehrig moved
like an old man: stiffly, slowly. He stumbled, his reflexes were
slow, there was little speed or power in his swing. Only once
during spring training did he seem to be himself again--when he
went 4 for 4, with two home runs, in an exhibition game the
Yankees played against the Dodgers as they barnstormed their way
back to New York. I was now 16, and I remember the elation I
felt when reading that Lou was all right. He was hitting with
power again. He had broken out of his slump. Now everything was
going to be O.K.
A New York sports columnist caught up with the Yankees a few
days later and asked manager Joe McCarthy about Gehrig's
encouraging day at the plate. McCarthy, who greatly admired
Gehrig, shook his head. It was a small ballpark, he explained.
The homers were soft fly balls over a short fence. Things
weren't all right after all.
Even after the season started, however, McCarthy refused to drop
him from the starting lineup. Gehrig played terribly. He stuck
it out for eight games, through April 30, extending his streak
to 2,130, and then went to McCarthy and asked to be benched. He
was hurting the club, he said. McCarthy acceded to his wish. The
streak ended officially in Detroit on May 2, when for the first
time since May 31, 1925, the name Gehrig did not appear in a
Yankee box score. Twenty-five-year-old Babe Dahlgren replaced
him at first base.
Gehrig tried to play one more time, in an exhibition game 10
days later in Kansas City against the Yankee farm club there.
After he fell down catching a line drive, he left the game in
the third inning. From Kansas City, Gehrig went to the Mayo
Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a physical evaluation. That's
when he, his wife and his fans learned what was wrong: Gehrig
was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable
form of paralysis that slowly destroys the central nervous
system. There was no hope, we later discovered. Not only was his
career over, but his life would soon be as well. On June 2,
1941, exactly 16 years after he replaced Pipp in the lineup,
Gehrig died at the age of 37.
In 1939, after he returned from the Mayo Clinic, Gehrig remained
with the Yankees, sitting on the bench in uniform for the rest
of the season. Yankee G.M. Ed Barrow retired Gehrig's number 4
and decreed that his locker be maintained, closed and sealed, as
long as Yankee Stadium stood--though the locker was moved to
baseball's Hall of Fame later that year. On July 4 he was
saluted in Yankee Stadium on what was declared Lou Gehrig
Appreciation Day. The usually taciturn Gehrig responded to the
gifts and accolades with a remarkable speech in which he called
himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" because of
the career he had had, the people he had known and the friends
he had made. As the speech ended, the emotional Ruth, long on
the outs with Gehrig, put his arms around Lou and hugged him. It
was an extraordinary moment.
But then Gehrig was an extraordinary man.