Few athletes — indeed, few people — have captured the American imagination like George Herman “Babe” Ruth. He remains the most legendary figure in the history of American sports, a gargantuan man who transcended the national pastime to become a national hero. The statistics are simply awe-inspiring: Ruth posted a .342 lifetime average while belting an absurd 714 home runs, all at a time when pitchers threw spit-balls, steroids had yet to be invented, and the center-field wall was often over 500 feet from home plate. Nearly a century after his retirement, the Babe is still the all-time leader in OPS, one of the more telling statistics for hitters. Of course, Ruth was somehow just as dominant a pitcher, evidenced by his otherworldly 0.87 ERA in the World Series.
Yet Ruth’s own teammate, Henry Louis “Lou” Gehrig, was even better. Gehrig was born in New York City in 1903, the first year of the World Series and of modern baseball. Like Ruth, Gehrig was an elite pitcher. On April 18, 1923, the same day that the original Yankee Stadium opened, Gehrig set a Columbia University record with 17 strikeouts. Yankees scout Paul Krichell, who attended that game, was astounded, having also watched the kid hit a superhuman home run that eventually landed on 116th Street and Broadway. Lou soon signed with the Yankees, making official what had always seemed his destiny.
In 1926, a 23-year-old Gehrig paced the majors with 20 triples and managed 112 RBI. But 1927 was when the budding star forever cemented his place in baseball lore. Gehrig hit .373 with 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, and a then-record 173 RBI. His 117 extra-base hits are two shy of Ruth’s all-time record; for context, no player surpassed 85 such hits in 2018, despite a longer season. And while Ruth’s famous 60 home run campaign that year has come to eclipse his teammate’s superior all-around performance, it was Gehrig who earned MVP honors.
While Ruth ate, drank, brawled, and boasted, Gehrig hid humbly in the Babe’s enormous shadow, silently becoming a player the likes of which the game had never seen before. From 1930 to 1932, Gehrig drove in 509 runs, the most ever in a three-year span by a ridiculous margin and a feat Ruth never approached. Gehrig’s 184 RBI in 1931 remain an American League record, whereas Ruth’s 60 home run mark has been eclipsed seven times.
Even when it came to hitting homers — which Ruth did more often than most other teams — Gehrig’s production was surprisingly comparable. During his 13 full seasons, Gehrig averaged 36.3 long balls, while Ruth averaged 43.0. Gehrig was also the first player in history to hit four home runs in a single game, and he nearly hit his fifth when he smashed a 460-foot bomb that was caught on the warning track. The longest home run hit by anyone thus far in 2019 traveled 482 feet, a mere wall-scraper back in the day. Admittedly, Ruth edges out Gehrig in the traditional rate stats, but the discrepancy is far smaller than most fans realize. Lou’s career line was .340/.447/.632; the Babe’s was .342/.474/.690. On the other hand, Gehrig’s numbers were undoubtedly deflated by playing through countless ailments, most notably the illness that now bears his name.
Whatever Ruth’s advantage in raw power, Gehrig made up for it with his advantage in consistency. Nicknamed the “Iron Horse,” Gehrig set a long-standing record by playing in every single game for 13 consecutive seasons; meanwhile, the Babe’s only season without a missed game was 1928. And despite toughing it out on a daily basis, Gehrig put up MVP-caliber stats year in and year out, compiling the second-longest streak in history of seasons with an OPS of at least 1.000 and at least 100 games played (note, of course, that the legacies of Bonds and Ramirez are subject to scrutiny):
- Barry Bonds: 13
- Lou Gehrig: 11
- Babe Ruth: 8
- Manny Ramirez: 6
Before rewriting the record books, Lou’s legend began on June 1, 1925, when Yankees manager Miller Huggins substituted him in as a pinch-hitter. The next day, Huggins named Gehrig the team’s starting first baseman in place of the struggling Wally Pipp, whose then-devastating slump turned out to be the most fortuitous thing that ever happened to the team. Over the next decade and a half, Gehrig never missed a day, driven by a silent but palpable work ethic that makes him unique among even the greats.
The streak nearly came to an end on multiple occasions. Gehrig, who like his contemporaries did not wear a helmet, was once hit in the head with the ball and remained in the game despite being knocked unconscious. X-rays from late in his career revealed that he had many undisclosed fractures, but he never complained. He simply played. Lou did get some help when a game was postponed due to rain — even though it was, incidentally, not raining — because Gehrig had the flu.
Gehrig’s numbers during his final seasons were impressive by any standard but his own, his disease having progressed to the point where he was collapsing while running the bases. On May 2, 1939, Lou’s streak finally ended, and he would never take the field again. His number four was the first number ever retired by any team, while he was elected to the Hall of Fame at a then-record age of 36. On June 2, 1941, exactly sixteen years after he earned his starting job, Lou Gehrig passed away.
Gehrig still holds over twenty major records — more than any other player — and would have broken more had he not contracted ALS. The man was infinitely humble in spite of limitless talent, he was gracious in victory and in death, and he was a self-made New Yorker who spent his entire career in pinstripes. His accomplishments largely forgotten, Gehrig lives on as the essence of what the game should be, as the quiet heart of its greatest dynasty, and as the ultimate New York Yankee.
Who’s Mr. Yankee?
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The Bambino (Babe Ruth)
The Iron Horse (Lou Gehrig)
The Captain (Derek Jeter)
The Yankee Clipper (Joe DiMaggio)
The Mick (Mickey Mantle)