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Lou Gehrig was a big fish in a big, big pond, a pond that included such big fishes as, in overshadowing succession, the bigger-than-life Babe Ruth and the peerless Joe DiMaggio, as well as the neighboring first baseman of the New York Giants, Bill Terry, who all he did in 1930 was hit.401.
Lou Gehrig: Greatest First Baseman Ever
Gehrig was at times overshadowed, but he was not eclipsed. His greatness was appreciated. He put in a honest day’s work without calling attention to himself, and he performed at very high levels on a ballfield. In fact, Lou was named the Greatest First Baseman Ever in connection with the 1969 observance of baseball’s centennial. He did, after all, hit .340 with 493 home runs and 1,990 RBI’s. His RBI total is the third highest all time, behind Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.
Lou Gehrig: Overlooked by Baseball Writers
Fate and sportswriters were not always fair with Gehrig. He would hit .545 in a World Series, as he did in 1928, and the Bambino would hit .625 in the same Series, overshadowing Lou’s performance. Lou would become the first player in the American League to hit four homers in one game, as he did on June 3, 1932, and on that very day Giants Manager John J. McGraw would announce his retirement and grab the headlines.
Lou would hit two homers in a World Series game, as he did in 1932, but it would be the game when Ruth hit his “called shot” home run and Gehrig’s homers faded into the background. The baseball writers would overlook Lou’s Triple Crown season in 1934, a year when he hit .363, with 49 homers, and 164 RBI’s, and give the MVP Award instead to Detroit’s Mickey Cochrane, who hit .320 with 2 homers and 76 RBI’s and led his team to the league pennant.
Sadly, Gehrig did not actually get his just due until he became tragically ill in 1939.
“The Next Babe Ruth”
Henry Louis Gehrig was born on June 19, 1903, in New York City, the son of loving German immigrants. At Manhattan’s Commerce High School, Lou was known as “the Babe Ruth of the high schools.”
He later attended Columbia University, where he was, by Yankees scout Paul Krichell’s reckoning, “the next Babe Ruth.” And when Lou, a solid 200-pounder with huge oak-tree legs, first joined the Yankees, he was “the Babe Ruth of the rookies.” He never quite shook the general perception that he was second fiddle to the great Bambino.
Krichell signed Gehrig in June 1923, Krichell’s crowning achievement in a remarkable career as chief Yankees scout. Gehrig received a $1,500 bonus and was sent down to Hartford.
The youngster in 1923 and 1924 had brief trials in New York, hitting a combined .447 (17 for 38) over these seasons. He stuck with the Yankees in 1925, but warmed the bench and watched Wally Pipp play first base. On June 1, 1925, Gehrig was sent in to pinch-hit for Pee Wee Wanninger. The next day Pipp rested with a headache, and Manager Miller Huggins told Lou, “You’re my first baseman today.”
The Iron Horse
Indeed Gehrig played that day in 1925 and played and played and played until he set a big-league record for most consecutive games played, which eventually was extended to 2,130 consecutive games.
He came to be known as the Iron Horse, and through the streak he played with fractured fingers, charley horses, spike wounds, sore muscles, bad colds, lumbago, and back pains, among other ailments and injuries. He didn’t even miss a game after sustaining a serious beaning (in the days before batting helmets). Of all his accomplishments in baseball, Gehrig would be respected most for his consecutive-games-played streak, which ended early in the 1939 season, and which was finally broken by Cal Ripen in 1995.
But beyond his famed playing streak, Gehrig may have been the most consistent power hitter of all time. In each of his 13 complete seasons (1926-38) as a starting player, Larrupin’ Lou drove in and scored 100 runs, a major-league record. In 1927, he knocked in 175 runs, breaking Ruth’s American League record of 171 RBI’s set in 1921. Then in 1931 Gehrig broke his own record with 184 RBI’s, a still-standing American League record. Gehrig would lead the league in RBI’s five times and in runs scored four times. He also won a piece of three home-run crowns.
Gehrig Still a Leader in Grand Slams
Gehrig still leads baseball’s all-time list for grand slams with 23. More impressive numbers in Gehrig’s corner include the 30 homers he hit at home in 1934, the most ever hit in one season at Yankee Stadium, and the 14 homers he hit against Cleveland in 1934.
When Larrupin Lou was forced to retire in 1939, his home-run total of 493 was at the time exceeded by only one man — Ruth, of course. Perhaps the greatest compliment ever paid Gehrig was an indirect one made by Josh Gibson, the great slugger and Hall of Fame star of the Negro Leagues, who reportedly patterned his hitting style after Lou and who would sometimes go to Yankee Stadium to study Lou.
Gehrig an All-Time Great Yankee Hitter
Yet, for all his power, Gehrig’s ability to make regular contact should not be overlooked. To this day, he ranks first on the Yankees all-time lists for hits, extra-base hits, singles, doubles, and triples. Lou enjoyed eight seasons of 200 or more hits, and only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb have had more. Consider this: Gehrig in 1934 hit 49 homers while striking out only 31 times. And he hit .348, .308,.545, and .529, respectively, in each of the first four World Series in which he played.
Gehrig was no nimble ballet dancer around first base, but he usually got the job done. He lacked speed, but he was not a lumbering ox, either. In fact, he stole home 15 times, the Yankees club record for thefts of home.
Lou was by most accounts a decent, family-oriented homebody. In fact, as a gentleman/ballplayer, Lou best exemplified the Yankees Image in the 1930′s, an image that was cultivated and nurtured by Manager Joe McCarthy and General Manager Ed Barrow after the wild and raucous Yankees of the 1920′s had faded away. Lou was made the captain of the Yankees in 1935, and he took the position seriously.
Gehrig had for him an off-year in 1938, and he looked old in the spring of 1939. On May 2, 1939, with his batting average stuck at .143, Gehrig removed himself from the Yankees line-up, and his playing steak was over. A few weeks later it was discovered that the source of Lou’s decline as a ballplayer was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which would take his life two years later.
The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth
In July 1939, the Yankees held a Day in Lou’s honor and many of his old teammates returned to Yankee Stadium to support him. Lou was finally persuaded to say a few words to the empathetic crowd. He conceded to the crowd that he had been dealt a bad card, but he went on to tell the packed house that he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
The Yankees retired Gehrig’s No. 4 uniform, and Lou was ushered into the Baseball Hall of Fame by special election. He would occasionally come to Yankee Stadium to visit his teammates, but his health progressively declined, to the acute sadness of all who witnessed his decline firsthand.
On June 2, 1941, 16 years to the day he replaced Wally Pipp as first basemen of the Yankees, Lou Gehrig died.