Jake Force
Rants by Jake

Continuation… The Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig

Gehrig’s career baseball accolades are nothing short of extraordinary. He played all seventeen of his Major League seasons (1923-1939) with the New York Yankees, for a total of 2,164 games. He whacked 493 career home runs, had a career .340 batting average, a lifetime .632 slugging percentage, 1,995 runs-batted-in (RBIs)— third all-time behind his teammate, Babe Ruth (2,211), and Hank Aaron (2,297). He spent 12 seasons in the top ten players of total games played, seven individual seasons as the player with the most games played and hit 23 grand slams, a record only recently broken by fellow Yankee, Alex Rodriguez.

Other remarkable statistics include a whopping .991 career fielding percentage, a .447 on-base percentage, and, out of a total of 9,665 plate appearances, Gehrig struck out only 790 times. (All stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com). If you know baseball, you recognize that last stat is utterly absurd…it was nearly impossible to strike this man out. For anyone who did strike him out, you can only hope they kept the ball as a souvenir. Of course we can’t forget the six World Series Championships and the award for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League Most Valuable Player in 1927 and 1936. It’s a resume few players in MLB history can or will ever match.

There was, and most certainly still is, nothing more a manager could ask of their first baseman. These stats and the attitude that accompanied them are what make Gehrig a complete embodiment of the word “ballplayer.” Not just because he did what he did every single day. He did it even when he felt like he couldn’t, and he still did it well. The baseball Hall of Fame’s website says in an article about Gehrig, that if you looked up the word ‘ballplayer’ in the dictionary, it’s possible they’ll have a picture of him. According to baseballhall.org, in 1969, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) voted Gehrig the greatest first baseman of all time…and he undoubtedly still is.

Ballplayer is a word synonymous with stardom—Michael Jordan. LeBron James. Tom Brady. Ken Griffey Jr. To put it in modern terms, Gehrig was a Jordan, James, Brady, Griffey Junior of his generation. All of these names can also be associated with remarkable courage. Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and also played one of his greatest games ever with the flu. James faced massive adversity while winning championships at a predominantly caucasion private high school. Brady appeared in ten Super Bowls playing until the age of 44 as a sixth-round NFL draft pick. Griffey Jr. was probably the greatest baseball player of his generation but was hampered by an injury-ridden career. Gehrig, perhaps mightier than all of them, continued to play baseball while ALS destroyed his body. These qualities are the definitions of a ballplayer—perseverance, dominance and greatness against all odds.

It was during the 1938 season that Gehrig began to feel physical changes that hampered his performance. In 1939, his wife, Eleanor, contacted the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. After spending six days under examination and having his case reviewed by Charles William Mayo himself, Gehrig found out he had ALS on June 19, 1939, a less-than-ideal present for his 36th birthday.

ALS, it should be noted, is a disease unlike any other. What it does to the human body is one of the saddest realities in all of human existence. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, the disease “affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control.” It also notes that “ALS often starts in the hands, feet or limbs, and then spreads to other parts of your body. As the disease advances and nerve cells are destroyed, your muscles get weaker. This eventually affects chewing, swallowing, speaking and breathing.” Complications from the disease include possible dementia and the eventual decay or loss of ability to breathe, speak and eat. ALS still has no cure. But perhaps the worst element of the disease is how mental astuteness remains relatively unaffected, leaving victims to bear full witness to their body’s slow demise.

What distinguishes Gehrig’s stardom from the aforementioned athletes is not only his drive to compete while sick, but also that baseball was really the only team sport played on a national stage at the time. The National Football League (NFL) was founded in 1920, but it wasn’t until 1966 that the NFL Champions would play against the American Football League champions in Super Bowl I, forming what would become the modern NFL and making the two leagues into conferences of the same league. The young National Hockey League consisted of only seven teams by the time Gehrig retired. The National Basketball Association wasn’t formed until 1946. During the 1920s and 30s, baseball was the only team sport in which players became full-fledged celebrities. People knew who Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth were the same way they knew who the president was. Their teammate, Joe Dimaggio, was married to Marilyn Monroe, arguably the most famous person on earth at the time. Gehrig, Ruth, Dimaggio and other players from that time, such as Ty Cobb, Satchel Paige and Ted Williams, were as well known as movie stars of their era. There’s a reason they’ve always called it “America’s Pastime.”

In Gehrig’s time, if you were a famous athlete who didn’t play baseball, you most likely excelled at an individual sport. Other celebrity-level athletes were people like Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Jesse Owens. But none of these individuals played a team sport. They were boxers, runners, and golfers. Athletes like Gehrig became household names by rising through the fabric of the teams they played for.

No current baseball star enjoys the level of celebrity known by Gehrig and his contemporaries. Current stars such as Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatis Jr. are possibly two of the greatest baseball players to come along in the last 30 years, yet most people outside the cities in which they play have never heard of them. The only modern baseball stars comparable to Gehrig, Ruth and Dimaggio are no longer playing the game: Derek Jeter. David Ortiz. Alex Rodriguez. Ken Griffey Jr.. Barry Bonds.

Although Gehrig reached greater heights of fame and stardom than some of his modern counterparts, he certainly didn’t do as well as them financially. According to baseball-reference, Gehrig’s playing career amassed him some $421,000 by the time he retired in 1939 (although baseball-reference discloses these figures may be incomplete). According to usinflationcounter.com, that is equivalent to about $8.5 million in today’s spending power, with a cumulative inflation rate of 1922.6 percent. Today, if you offered any of the top twenty (or more) players in baseball $8.5 million for just one season, they would laugh in your face. Then they would go to another team and sign a ten-year contract worth $300 million.

Despite being known as a ballplayer, Gehrig nearly became a movie star, too. According to the Society for American Baseball research (SABR), in 1936, Tarzan producer Sol Lesser was looking for the next portrayer of Tarzan. The character had previously been played by professional athletes Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, and Herman Brix. It had been suggested to Lesser that Gehrig be considered for the role, an idea that Lesser welcomed. In the end he decided that Gehrig’s legs were “a trifle too ample” to fit the role, according to SABR. Below is a photo of Gehrig trying on the Tarzan costume for a shot at the role.

Gehrig in the Tarzan costume. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times by way of Acme News Photos.)

He did, however, end up scoring a role playing himself in Lesser’s 1938 film Rawhide, directed by Ray Taylor. In the film that runs just 58 minutes, Gehrig decides to give up his baseball career in New York City to move to a ranch out west in a town named Rawhide, where he ends up in a feud with a gang of ranchers. The movie was filmed in 1938 during the MLB offseason and the premiere was held near Yankee spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, all of which was done to accommodate Gehrig’s baseball schedule.

Gehrig in Rawhide in 1938. (Photo courtesy of of wikimedia commons by way of archive.org)

The most memorable moment of Gehrig’s storied career, however, was his gut-wrenching July 4, 1939 retirement speech at Yankee Stadium, a speech many refer to as baseball’s Gettysburg Address. News of his diagnosis had become public in the days before the speech. Between games during a double-header against the Washington Senators, Gehrig took to the field where microphones and cameras waited for him at home plate. Gehrig, surrounded by his teammates, brought the entire stadium–and everyone listening at home—to tears.

Gehrig’s retirement speech at Yankee Stadium. 4th of July, 1939. (Photo courtesy of ALS.org)

Gehrig’s retirement speech at Yankee Stadium. 4th of July, 1939. (Photo courtesy of ALS.org)

“For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Gehrig said to the sold out Yankee Stadium crowd.

According Gehrig’s archived obituary in The New York Times, the acclaimed newspaper “reported that ‘it was without doubt one of the most touching scenes ever witnessed on a ball field and one that made even case-hardened ball players and chroniclers of the game swallow hard.’” Manager Joe McCarthy and teammate Babe Ruth also spoke.

Gehrig would watch the second game of the double-header from the dugout as his Yankees cruised to an 11-1 victory.

In 1938, his second-to-last season before his retirement, Gehrig’s playing ability had been inexplicably declining. And despite him reporting that he felt  like he “just couldn’t get going again,” Gehrig continued to play above average baseball. While his body decayed, he still managed to carry a .295 batting average, a .523 slugging percentage, 29 home runs, and only 75 strikeouts on 689 plate appearances.

As previously stated, what Gehrig means to American history and culture spans far beyond the success he had on the baseball diamond. Gehrig was an early example of how sports stars transcend what we believe is possible. They unite us. They inspire us. They thrill us. To say Lou Gehrig still means so much to the game of baseball is a gross understatement. He continues to be an icon of American culture and a legend of not just New York City, but all of America. And his impact continues to be felt today. He will always have all the makings of a superstar, because that’s what he was. And through massive adversity, he shined brightly on the biggest stage in American sports. On December 8, 1939, the BBWAA waived the five-year waiting period due to his illness and immediately elected Gehrig into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY..

On July 4, 1939, Gehrig was presented a trophy by his teammates that had a poem inscribed on it by New York Times sports columnist John Kieran:

To LOU GEHRIG

We’ve been to the wars together;

We took our foes as they came:

And always you were the leader,

And ever you played the game.

Idol of cheering millions:

Records are yours by sheaves:

Iron of frame they hailed you,

Decked you with laurel leaves.

But higher than that we hold you,

We who have known you best;

Knowing the way you came through

Every human test.

Let this be a silent token

Of lasting friendship’s gleam

And all that we’ve left unspoken.

Your Pals of the Yankee Team.

It remains one of the greatest feats in baseball history, in all of sports history, really. Twenty-one hundred and thirty consecutive games played, a record that stood for 56 years until Cal Ripken Jr. finally surpassed it. The streak earned Lou Gehrig his nickname, “The Iron Horse.” The day after that 2,130th game, Gehrig approached then-New York Yankees manager, Joe McCarthy, to take himself out of the lineup. That request marked the beginning of the end for a baseball legend, by then battling perhaps the most debilitating disease known to man—Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a disease that would later come to be known as  “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

An article on Gehrig in the ESPN archives calls his legacy one of irony. His nickname, The Iron Horse, implies he was a man of indestructible stature. Yet, at age 35, he contracted an incurable disease that rendered him weak, frail and eventually dead at 37.

Aside from being one of baseball’s greatest hitters of all time, Gehrig was also known for being the number four—or “clean-up”—hitter behind the legendary Babe Ruth. The duo endures as one the greatest in all of sports history. Every year on June 2, the day of Gehrig’s passing,  Major League Baseball celebrates “Lou Gehrig Day” to commemorate the slugger’s legacy, writes Bill Francis for the Baseball Hall of Fame’s website, adding, “His accomplishments and what he stands for as an icon of American sports culture have long been a pillar of the Hall of Fame’s guest experience.”

What Gehrig means to sport and American culture spans far beyond the game of baseball. He remains a symbol of what a commitment to greatness and excellence means for athletes. And, he endures in American history as one of the great examples of courage.

A human machine from an early age, Gehrig weighed a remarkable 14 pounds at the time of his birth on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He was born to German immigrants, Christina Foch and Heinrich Gehrig on June 19, 1903. Two of his sisters died from measles and whooping cough. A  brother died as an infant. One might consider Gehrig a miracle baby. Perhaps the only bigger miracle than him surviving his childhood was the magnitude of what he would live to accomplish.

Before ascending to greatness in the Major Leagues, Gehrig gained attention for his play in a special high school championship game in Chicago. He then attended Columbia College where he would play baseball and football, according to Columbia’s 250th anniversary website. On April 30, 1923, Gehrig cut his college career short and signed with the Yankees as a free agent. He claimed it was because he needed the money. Keep in mind, this is before the MLB held an annual entry draft, which didn’t start until the 1960s.

Gehrig in his Columbia baseball uniform. (Photo courtesy of wikipedia).

Gehrig’s career baseball accolades are nothing short of extraordinary. He played all seventeen of his Major League seasons (1923-1939) with the New York Yankees, for a total of 2,164 games. He whacked 493 career home runs, had a career .340 batting average, a lifetime .632 slugging percentage, 1,995 runs-batted-in (RBIs)— third all-time behind his teammate, Babe Ruth (2,211), and Hank Aaron (2,297). He spent 12 seasons in the top ten players of total games played, seven individual seasons as the player with the most games played and hit 23 grand slams, a record only recently broken by fellow Yankee, Alex Rodriguez.

Other remarkable statistics include a whopping .991 career fielding percentage, a .447 on-base percentage, and, out of a total of 9,665 plate appearances, Gehrig struck out only 790 times. (All stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com). If you know baseball, you recognize that last stat is utterly absurd…it was nearly impossible to strike this man out. For anyone who did strike him out, you can only hope they kept the ball as a souvenir. Of course we can’t forget the six World Series Championships and the award for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League Most Valuable Player in 1927 and 1936. It’s a resume few players in MLB history can or will ever match.

There was, and most certainly still is, nothing more a manager could ask of their first baseman. These stats and the attitude that accompanied them are what make Gehrig a complete embodiment of the word “ballplayer.” Not just because he did what he did every single day. He did it even when he felt like he couldn’t, and he still did it well. The baseball Hall of Fame’s website says in an article about Gehrig, that if you looked up the word ‘ballplayer’ in the dictionary, it’s possible they’ll have a picture of him. According to baseballhall.org, in 1969, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) voted Gehrig the greatest first baseman of all time…and he undoubtedly still is.

Ballplayer is a word synonymous with stardom—Michael Jordan. LeBron James. Tom Brady. Ken Griffey Jr. To put it in modern terms, Gehrig was a Jordan, James, Brady, Griffey Junior of his generation. All of these names can also be associated with remarkable courage. Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and also played one of his greatest games ever with the flu. James faced massive adversity while winning championships at a predominantly caucasion private high school. Brady appeared in ten Super Bowls playing until the age of 44 as a sixth-round NFL draft pick. Griffey Jr. was probably the greatest baseball player of his generation but was hampered by an injury-ridden career. Gehrig, perhaps mightier than all of them, continued to play baseball while ALS destroyed his body. These qualities are the definitions of a ballplayer—perseverance, dominance and greatness against all odds.

It was during the 1938 season that Gehrig began to feel physical changes that hampered his performance. In 1939, his wife, Eleanor, contacted the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. After spending six days under examination and having his case reviewed by Charles William Mayo himself, Gehrig found out he had ALS on June 19, 1939, a less-than-ideal present for his 36th birthday.

ALS, it should be noted, is a disease unlike any other. What it does to the human body is one of the saddest realities in all of human existence. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, the disease “affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control.” It also notes that “ALS often starts in the hands, feet or limbs, and then spreads to other parts of your body. As the disease advances and nerve cells are destroyed, your muscles get weaker. This eventually affects chewing, swallowing, speaking and breathing.” Complications from the disease include possible dementia and the eventual decay or loss of ability to breathe, speak and eat. ALS still has no cure. But perhaps the worst element of the disease is how mental astuteness remains relatively unaffected, leaving victims to bear full witness to their body’s slow demise.

What distinguishes Gehrig’s stardom from the aforementioned athletes is not only his drive to compete while sick, but also that baseball was really the only team sport played on a national stage at the time. The National Football League (NFL) was founded in 1920, but it wasn’t until 1966 that the NFL Champions would play against the American Football League champions in Super Bowl I, forming what would become the modern NFL and making the two leagues into conferences of the same league. The young National Hockey League consisted of only seven teams by the time Gehrig retired. The National Basketball Association wasn’t formed until 1946. During the 1920s and 30s, baseball was the only team sport in which players became full-fledged celebrities. People knew who Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth were the same way they knew who the president was. Their teammate, Joe Dimaggio, was married to Marilyn Monroe, arguably the most famous person on earth at the time. Gehrig, Ruth, Dimaggio and other players from that time, such as Ty Cobb, Satchel Paige and Ted Williams, were as well known as movie stars of their era. There’s a reason they’ve always called it “America’s Pastime.”

In Gehrig’s time, if you were a famous athlete who didn’t play baseball, you most likely excelled at an individual sport. Other celebrity-level athletes were people like Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Jesse Owens. But none of these individuals played a team sport. They were boxers, runners, and golfers. Athletes like Gehrig became household names by rising through the fabric of the teams they played for.

No current baseball star enjoys the level of celebrity known by Gehrig and his contemporaries. Current stars such as Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatis Jr. are possibly two of the greatest baseball players to come along in the last 30 years, yet most people outside the cities in which they play have never heard of them. The only modern baseball stars comparable to Gehrig, Ruth and Dimaggio are no longer playing the game: Derek Jeter. David Ortiz. Alex Rodriguez. Ken Griffey Jr.. Barry Bonds.

Although Gehrig reached greater heights of fame and stardom than some of his modern counterparts, he certainly didn’t do as well as them financially. According to baseball-reference, Gehrig’s playing career amassed him some $421,000 by the time he retired in 1939 (although baseball-reference discloses these figures may be incomplete). According to usinflationcounter.com, that is equivalent to about $8.5 million in today’s spending power, with a cumulative inflation rate of 1922.6 percent. Today, if you offered any of the top twenty (or more) players in baseball $8.5 million for just one season, they would laugh in your face. Then they would go to another team and sign a ten-year contract worth $300 million.

Despite being known as a ballplayer, Gehrig nearly became a movie star, too. According to the Society for American Baseball research (SABR), in 1936, Tarzan producer Sol Lesser was looking for the next portrayer of Tarzan. The character had previously been played by professional athletes Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, and Herman Brix. It had been suggested to Lesser that Gehrig be considered for the role, an idea that Lesser welcomed. In the end he decided that Gehrig’s legs were “a trifle too ample” to fit the role, according to SABR. Below is a photo of Gehrig trying on the Tarzan costume for a shot at the role.

Gehrig in the Tarzan costume. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times by way of Acme News Photos.)

He did, however, end up scoring a role playing himself in Lesser’s 1938 film Rawhide, directed by Ray Taylor. In the film that runs just 58 minutes, Gehrig decides to give up his baseball career in New York City to move to a ranch out west in a town named Rawhide, where he ends up in a feud with a gang of ranchers. The movie was filmed in 1938 during the MLB offseason and the premiere was held near Yankee spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, all of which was done to accommodate Gehrig’s baseball schedule.

Gehrig in Rawhide in 1938. (Photo courtesy of of wikimedia commons by way of archive.org)

The most memorable moment of Gehrig’s storied career, however, was his gut-wrenching July 4, 1939 retirement speech at Yankee Stadium, a speech many refer to as baseball’s Gettysburg Address. News of his diagnosis had become public in the days before the speech. Between games during a double-header against the Washington Senators, Gehrig took to the field where microphones and cameras waited for him at home plate. Gehrig, surrounded by his teammates, brought the entire stadium–and everyone listening at home—to tears.

Gehrig’s retirement speech at Yankee Stadium. 4th of July, 1939. (Photo courtesy of ALS.org)

“For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Gehrig said to the sold out Yankee Stadium crowd.

According Gehrig’s archived obituary in The New York Times, the acclaimed newspaper “reported that ‘it was without doubt one of the most touching scenes ever witnessed on a ball field and one that made even case-hardened ball players and chroniclers of the game swallow hard.’” Manager Joe McCarthy and teammate Babe Ruth also spoke.

Gehrig would watch the second game of the double-header from the dugout as his Yankees cruised to an 11-1 victory.

In 1938, his second-to-last season before his retirement, Gehrig’s playing ability had been inexplicably declining. And despite him reporting that he felt  like he “just couldn’t get going again,” Gehrig continued to play above average baseball. While his body decayed, he still managed to carry a .295 batting average, a .523 slugging percentage, 29 home runs, and only 75 strikeouts on 689 plate appearances.

As previously stated, what Gehrig means to American history and culture spans far beyond the success he had on the baseball diamond. Gehrig was an early example of how sports stars transcend what we believe is possible. They unite us. They inspire us. They thrill us. To say Lou Gehrig still means so much to the game of baseball is a gross understatement. He continues to be an icon of American culture and a legend of not just New York City, but all of America. And his impact continues to be felt today. He will always have all the makings of a superstar, because that’s what he was. And through massive adversity, he shined brightly on the biggest stage in American sports. On December 8, 1939, the BBWAA waived the five-year waiting period due to his illness and immediately elected Gehrig into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY..

On July 4, 1939, Gehrig was presented a trophy by his teammates that had a poem inscribed on it by New York Times sports columnist John Kieran:

To LOU GEHRIG

We’ve been to the wars together;

We took our foes as they came:

And always you were the leader,

And ever you played the game.

Idol of cheering millions:

Records are yours by sheaves:

Iron of frame they hailed you,

Decked you with laurel leaves.

But higher than that we hold you,

We who have known you best;

Knowing the way you came through

Every human test.

Let this be a silent token

Of lasting friendship’s gleam

And all that we’ve left unspoken.

Your Pals of the Yankee Team.

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———. “Luckiest Man.” National Baseball Hall of Fame. Accessed February 13, 2022. https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/baseball-history/lou-gehrig-luckiest-man.

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Beschloss, Michael. “When the Iron Horse (Almost) Played Tarzan.” The New York Times. Accessed February 13, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/26/upshot/when-the-iron-horse-almost-played-tarzan.html.

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Martin, Andrew. “What Cost New York Yankees Legend Lou Gehrig a Shot at Hollywood Stardom?” Medium. Accessed February 13, 2022. https://medium.com/sportsraid/what-cost-new-york-yankees-legend-lou-gehrig-a-shot-at-hollywood-stardom-4b8307f698e3.

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).” Mayo Clinic. Accessed February 13, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/amyotrophic-lateral-sclerosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354022.

“Rawhide (1938 film).” Wikipedia. Accessed February 13, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rawhide_(1938_film).

Ray, James Lincoln. “Lou Gehrig.” Society of American Baseball Research. Accessed February 13, 2022. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/lou-gehrig/.

Schwartz, Larry. “Gehrig legacy one of irony.” SportsCentury. Accessed February 13, 2022. https://www.espn.com/sportscentury/features/00014204.html.

SLOTNIK, DANIEL E. “The Day Lou Gehrig Made Yankee Stadium Weep.” The New York Times, June 2, 2016. Accessed February 13, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives.

US Inflation Calculator. US Inflation Calculator. Accessed February 13, 2022. https://www.usinflationcalculator.com.