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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #3 Lou Gehrig

He means way more beyond baseball, but Lou Gehrig was also a heck of a baseball player.

Lou Gehrig Watching Game

Full Name: Henry Louis “Lou” Gehrig
Position: First base
Born: June 19, 1903 (New York, NY)
Died: June 2, 1941 (Bronx, NY)
Yankee Years: 1923-39
Primary Number: 4
Yankee Statistics: 2,164 G, 9,665 PA, .340/.447/.632, 2,721 H, 493 HR, 534 2B, 163 3B, 1,995 RBI, 1,508 BB, 179 OPS+, 171 wRC+, 113.8 bWAR, 115.9 fWAR

Biography

Today, the name “Lou Gehrig” stands for so much more than a baseball player, even as excellent a player he was. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease which tragically took his life, was often called Lou Gehrig’s disease as he was the most well known person to be diagnosed as the began to come into the public’s consciousness. The speech he gave on the field at Yankee Stadium after his diagnosis is probably more famous than anything he did on that field as a player.

However, that speech — as good as it was — wouldn’t still resonate today if it wasn’t truly meaningful, and coming from someone truly beloved. Lou Gehrig was that, for more than baseball, certainly. That being said, it’s hard to become as beloved in both Yankees’ and baseball history as Gehrig was without being truly one of the greatest players to ever live.

Local Legend

Lou Gehrig Going Down for a Catch

Henry Louis Gehrig was born in 1903 in the city in which he would become famous: New York City. His parents, Heinrich and Christina, were German immigrants who had three other children, but none outside of “Lou” lived past toddlerhood. However, he was apparently healthy enough for all of them, reportedly weighing 14 pounds at birth.

Gehrig grew up speaking German at home, and even later formed a bond with Babe Ruth — also of German ancestry — by speaking to each other in the language. While he was growing up, Christina Gehrig was mostly the main breadwinner of the family, working as a maid, as Heinrich often struggled with alcoholism and epilepsy. Lou would often help his mother with her work and the two had a very close bond, with him calling her his “best pal.”

As you might expect as the child of immigrant parents from a place where baseball isn’t much of a thing, Gehrig’s parents weren’t initially thrilled with Lou’s love of baseball, which he formed at an early age. That love quickly came about from playing sandlot games, and soon turned into him saving what money he could to attend games of his favorite team: the—gasp—New York Giants.

However, it quickly became clear that Gehrig was very, very good at the game. The sandlot games later turned into playing in school at Commerce High School in Manhattan. Playing there is also what led to his first brush with fame. After his school won the New York City championship, they were invited to take on the Chicago champions at the stadium now known as Wrigley Field. During the game, Gehrig hit a grand slam clear out of the stadium, which would’ve been an impressive feat for a major leaguer, never mind a high schooler.

Despite his baseball skill, Gehrig’s parents still hoped for him to get into business or another field, so he enrolled at Columbia University, where his mother worked at a fraternity house. He still had an eye on athletics, though, as he also played on the college’s baseball and football teams.

Prior to that, a botched tryout with the Giants led to him briefly playing under a false name for a minor league team. The discovery of that led to him being banned from playing for Columbia for a year. However once he did, it didn’t take long for him to continue making a name for himself.

Lou Gehrig Holding Baseball Bat

In one 1923 game, Gehrig struck out 17 Williams College batters as a pitcher. That caught people’s eye, including that of legendary Yankee scout Paul Krichell.

After attending further games, Krichell came away even more impressed by Gehrig’s hitting and excitedly told Yankees GM Ed Barrow that he had found the “next Babe Ruth.” Despite his parent’s earlier reluctance, the money offered by the Yankees proved to be too much to not accept and he signed with the team on April 30, 1923.

Early Career and Pipp-ing Wally Pipp

In his first two years after signing with the Yankees, Gehrig played just 23 games combined across 1923 and ‘24. Despite that, he showed plenty of potential in his sparse chances, putting up a 209 OPS+ in 42 plate appearances. He also spent some time in the minors with the Hartford Senators, where he also opened eyes with 61 homers in 193 games. His talent was evident, and he was subject of poaching attempts. In 1924, Rochester of the International League tried to get him when the Yankees acquired Fred Merkle of “Merkle’s Boner” fame.

Gehrig went through some frustrations in those early years, including a run-in with a certain Ty Cobb. After getting tagged out by the Tigers legend after getting in a rundown, Cobb somewhat mocked the youngster saying “You think you’re a ballplayer, all you can do is hit that ball. If you’re a ballplayer, I’m the King of Siam.” That led to Gehrig getting ejected after jawing at Cobb, and then later attempting to go after him in the clubhouse, only to slip and knock himself out.

Towards the beginning of the 1925 season, still getting sparse playing time, Gehrig asked manager Miller Huggins if he could go on waivers so he could go down to the minors and play more. However, his chance was about to come in a big way.

In a moment that now lives in fame, Gehrig was given the start at first base on June 2, 1925. That day, Wally Pipp, a star of the 1923 World Series champions and a Yankee great in his own right, was given the day off. The legend is that he came that day with a headache and Huggins told him to just take the day off and rest. There’s also a line of thinking that, as the Yankees were struggling a bit in ‘25, Huggins decided to just get a look at a still-young Gehrig.

Whatever the reason, the only people that day it didn’t work out for were Pipp and the rest of the league. Gehrig went 3-for-5 with a double on June 2nd. He wouldn’t leave the Yankees’ lineup again until 1939.

Rounding Out “Murderers’ Row”

Lou Gerhrig and Babe Ruth Selecting Bats

With the Yankees going nowhere in 1925, Huggins decided to stick with Gehrig at first base. Over the course of the season, he put up a 127 OPS+, more than earing that gig. After the season, the Yankees sold Pipp to the Reds, confirming that Gehrig was now a Yankees’ regular.

In 1926, Gehrig took a step forward, hitting .313/.420/.549. He also topped 100 RBI for the first time in his career, which he would do every year until his ALS-curtailing 1939. On August 13th, he homered twice off Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, becoming the first and only player to ever do that against “The Big Train.”

The Yankees also returned to the top of the AL, winning the pennant in ‘26. While he had been in the organization in 1923, the 1926 World Series would be Gehrig’s first time on the field in a Fall Classic. The Yankees lost the series in seven games to the Cardinals, but Gehrig acquitted himself well, going 8-for-23 with two doubles and four RBI. In Game 5, he played a crucial role in a nine inning rally that allowed the Yankees to tie the game. He led off with a double and later scored the tying run before the Yankees eventually won in 10 innings. He might’ve had a chance to be a hero in Game 7, but he was left on deck when Babe Ruth was thrown out trying to steal second for the final out of the series, with the Yankees trailing by just a run.

The next year, Gehrig took an even bigger step forward. He slugged 47 home runs that year, and kept pace with the prodigious home run-hitting ability of Ruth for much of the year. His 173 RBI set a single-season record, although that number would be surpassed by a couple people — including Gehrig himself — over the next couple years. With a 220 OPS+, he was voted the winner of the League Award — a precursor to the MVP Award. However, it should be noted that at that time, you could only win the honor once. Considering that 1927 was Babe Ruth’s 60-home run record season, he would’ve had some stiff competition were that not the case.

With Gehrig, Ruth, Tony Lazzeri and others forming the “Murderers’ Row” lineup, the Yankees steamrolled all comers in the AL in 1927. They then swept away the Pirates in the World Series. Gehrig went 4-for-13 with four RBI in the sweep, including two in the key 4-3 victory in Game 1.

A 193 OPS+ and league leads in some other categories in 1928 helped the Yankees back to the World Series, where Gehrig himself was a monster. In a sweep of the Cardinals, Gehrig hit an astounding .545/.706/1.727. He hit four home runs, one inside-the-park and drove home nine runs. Ruth was neck and neck with him numbers wise in the series, but you could argue that Gehrig should’ve been the MVP as many of his hits came in more crucial moments.

The Yankees took a step back as a team in 1929, and Huggins tragically passed away that September. Gehrig was devastated, saying “Next to my mother and father, he was the best friend a boy could have. He taught me everything I know. There was never a more patient and pleasant man to work for. I can’t believe he’ll never join us again.” Gehrig persevered to post another monster year on the field with 35 bombs and a 166 OPS+.

Lou Gehrig - New York Yankees

Former teammate Bob Shawkey took the reigns in 1930, but the Yankees again fell short in the AL, despite Gehrig driving home another 173 RBI. The Yankees finally found the next great leader in Joe McCarthy, who they hired ahead of the 1931 season. They again finished a ways back of the Philadelphia Athletics that year, despite 185 RBI, a league-leading 46 home runs and a 194 OPS+ from Gehrig. However, another great era was just on the horizon.

Leading Another Dynasty

As the calendar turned to 1932, the likes of Gehrig, Ruth, and Lazzeri were supplemented by the likes of Bill Dickey and Red Ruffing’s ascent to stardom along with the leadership of McCarthy. That helped the Yankees return to the top of the AL, with Gehrig and Ruth still leading the way.

On June 3rd, Gehrig produced arguably his single greatest and most memorable game. That day, he homered four times in a 20-13 win over the Athletics, was even robbed of a fifth by a leaping Al Simmons catch. Despite that, he was the first player to go deep four times in a game since Ed Delahanty in 1896. He is still just one of 18 players to ever accomplish the feat, and came very near to being the only person ever to have hit a fifth homer in a game.

As the Yankees returned to the World Series, Gehrig had another massive performance. In a sweep of the Cubs, he went 9-for-20 with three home runs and eight RBI.

The Yankees as a team again fell back to the pack the next couple years, but Gehrig continued producing monster numbers. In 1933, he broke Everett Scott’s consecutive games played record of 1,307. By the time the “Iron Horse” stopped, that record would be quite a big higher. He was also named to the first of seven consecutive All-Star teams that year, the first in which the Midsummer Classic was played.

Gehrig’s 1934 was especially notable, as he led the league in most major offensive categories, winning the Triple Crown with a career-high 49 homers and posting a 207 OPS+. That would also be the final season that his long time teammate and fellow star Ruth was a Yankee. The two had a sometimes great, sometimes frosty relationship, but there’s no doubt that they’re inextricably linked. With Gehrig also now the unquestioned leader with Ruth gone, he was named Yankee captain for 1935. There wouldn’t be another for 41 years.

In 1936, Gehrig got a new running mate as a young Joe DiMaggio debuted and quickly added to the Yankees’ lineup. The two of them helped the Yankees to a 102-win season and a return to the World Series.

Gehrig And DiMaggio Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images

For his efforts (a 190 OPS+, 49 home runs, and the lead lead in several other stats), Gehrig was named AL MVP for essentially the second time in his career. In the World Series, Gehrig wasn’t quite as dominant as he had been in past Fall Classics, but he was still very good, recording seven hits and seven RBI in the six-game victory over the Giants.

The 1937 season was more of the same, as Gehrig posted a 176 OPS+ and helped lead the Yankees to another pennant. They knocked off the Giants for another championship that year, with Gehrig posting a OPS above 1.000 for the series. Every thing seemed business as usual back then, but little did anyone know at the time that this would be the last time Lou Gehrig was truly Lou Gehrig.

Downturn and Diagnosis

On the surface, Gehrig’s stats for 1938 look perfectly normal. Sure, they weren’t quite as dominant as past years, but 29 home runs and a .932 OPS was still excellent for a 35-year old. However, Gehrig himself could sense something was not quite right. He didn’t seem to have quite the power that he once had, noting “I see the ball all right and take a proper cut and seem to connect like I want to, but somehow the ball doesn’t seem to take the proper zoom.”

While he continued to go out there every day, surpassing the 2,000 consecutive game mark that season, Gehrig began getting affected by the wear and tear of the season like never before. The Yankees still won the AL and the World Series, adding to Gehrig’s collection of titles, but he failed to record an extra-base hit in the win over the Cubs.

Considering what we know about what happened with his health, those are still some remarkable number for some who was, in essence, dying. While Gehrig spent the winter trying to exercise and regain his strength, the opposite was happening. Upon reporting to spring training, he was struggling even worse than he had the prior year, and even collapsed in the clubhouse on a couple occasions.

Upon the beginning of the 1939 campaign, Gehrig went just 4-for-28 at the plate, and noticeably looked slower in the field and running the bases. On May 2nd, he went to McCarthy and asked for a day off, the first in over a decade. While he planned to have it just be a temporary move, it was still monumental for him to take a day off and end his streak at 2,130 consecutive games. The unbelievable run would last as baseball’s best until Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995; the “Iron Man” extended his run to 2,632 but was always extremely kind in crediting Gehrig for both his courage and paving the way.

As he continued to sit out, Gehrig kept traveling with the Yankees, but the rest wasn’t changing anything. That eventually led to him checking into the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, still searching for some sort of answer. The one he got wasn’t good. Gehrig was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — then a relatively unknown condition but absolutely devastating. A return to the baseball field was out of the question, and ALS would likely take his life within a matter of years.

Retirement and the Speech

After the revelation that he would have to retire, the Yankees announced a Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day would be held on July 4, 1939. The event brought many dignitaries and former teammates out, including Ruth, even though the two had gone through a rocky period in their relationship.

The ceremonies were held in between games of a doubleheader that day. After numerous speeches, Gehrig himself was invited to the microphone. While you can probably recite the most famous line by heart, in its echo-y, crackly recorded form, Gehrig said so much more than that on that day, and all of it is worth reading:

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. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such a fine looking men as they’re standing in uniform in this ballpark today? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
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 might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

After the festivities of that day, Gehrig retired back to his Bronx home with his wife, Eleanor, who he had met in Chicago back during the 1932 World Series. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed him to a term as a New York City Parole Commissioner, which he performed for the remainder of his life. Said life sadly only lasted a little while longer. On June 2, 1941, Gehrig passed away just a few weeks shy of his 38th birthday, an age at which plenty of players are still on the field.

Following his death, Eleanor Gehrig devoted the rest of her life to ALS research and never remarried. A regular to Yankees Old-Timers’ Day, she did everything she could to keep his memory alive until her own passing in 1984. She said of Lou, “I would not have traded two minutes of the joy and grief with that man for two decades of anything with another.”

Lou Gehrig - New York Yankees

Just as a player, Lou Gehrig is an unquestionable Yankees and baseball icon. However, he also means so much more than that in many ways.

Staff Rank: 3
Community Rank: 2
Stats Rank: 2
2013 Rank: 2

References

Baseball Almanac (1)

Baseball Almanac (2)

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

German-American Hall of Fame

Hoffman, Paul. SABR

Krieger, Tara. SABR (1)

Kreiger, Tara. SABR (2)

National Baseball Hall of Fame

Pinstripe Alley (1)

Pinstripe Alley (2)

Ray, James Lincoln. SABR Bio

WBUR

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