I live on the East Coast and write about sports such as football, baseball, hockey, and basketball.
Every baseball fan knows about Lou Gehrig. The iconic Hall of Fame first baseman played for the New York Yankees in the 1920s and 30s and tragically died of ALS in 1941 after being on the field for an incredible 2130 consecutive games. However, Gehrig was somewhat of an enigma to his teammates, the fans, and the newspaper writers.
He didn’t fit the mold of the typical ballplayer of the time who drank booze, chased women, and stayed out all hours of the night. In contrast, Lou often brought his mom to spring training, drank malted milk, and went to bed early. His only vice seemed to be an occasional cigarette.
Words used to describe him include shy, earnest, modest, insecure, strange, cheap, colorless, thoughtful, muscular, handsome, aloof, disciplined, polite, strong, wholesome, serious, powerful, distant, brooding, dignified, sensitive, durable, determined, and dependable. Gehrig also played in the shadows of the boisterous Babe Ruth early in his career and the rising star Joe DiMaggio toward the end. Consequently, it is difficult to know what he was truly like as a person.
Thankfully, author Jonathan Eig wrote a wonderfully detailed book about Lou titled Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. Here are several lesser-known items I learned about the Yankee great while reading his story.
1. His Nickname Was Inspired by a Train
Gehrig’s “Iron Horse” nickname is one of the best in baseball history. However, it took years for this legendary label to emerge. In an era when sportswriters concocted new nicknames for players seemingly every day, the scribes had difficulty thinking of one for Lou that would stick. Some of Gehrig’s early nicknames were not that memorable. They included such lackluster monikers as Buster, Columbia Lou, Larruping Lou, the Big Dutchman, and Biscuit Pants for the size of his rear end.
In 1931, when Lou’s consecutive game streak first started to garner attention, Will Wedge of the New York Sun finally gave him a handle that captured his powerful frame and determined nature. Wedge wrote, “Gehrig certainly is one of the Yank’s prize locomotives—a veritable Iron Horse to pull the team along over the grades. And certainly, he has an important run on the main line; he is steaming along with throttle open wide after the 1,307 game mark set by Deacon Scott.” Scott held the longest consecutive games played streak at the time. A milestone Lou would easily surpass in the coming years.
2. All His Siblings Died Young
Lou’s older sister Anna died when she was three months old. He was born in 1903, and his younger sister and brother also passed away very early, leaving him as an only child. Lou would never speak in detail about the deaths or how they affected his family. Because he was an only child, he became “Little Louis” and the ultimate mama’s boy to his mother, Christina.
3. His High School Team Was National Champions
In 1920, Lou’s Commerce High team was the best in New York City and they traveled all-expenses-paid to Chicago to play the best team from the Windy City for the high school championship. When Gehrig was a senior he weighed 180 pounds and stood six feet tall, which was enormous for a high school kid at the time. In the big game played at the Cubs park, he didn’t disappoint either. He managed to hit a towering grand slam in the ninth inning to put the game out of reach for the Lane Tech Chicago team. After the game, Lou was called “Babe” Gehrig by a columnist in The New York Daily News.
4. There Was an Incident With the Babe
Bill Dickey, the Yankee catcher, said when he first arrived with the team, Babe Ruth and Gehrig were good friends, but then something happened. Apparently, in 1934, on a cruise ship voyage to Japan with other ball players, Gehrig couldn’t find his wife. After searching, he eventually discovered her in Ruth’s cabin, having a small caviar and champagne party.
Nothing likely happened between Ruth and Eleanor Gehrig. She was devoted to her husband and was sophisticated enough to handle any of the Babe’s antics. The Babe was just being friendly, but he crossed a line, and Lou would rarely speak to him again. Ruth took some shots at Lou in the papers a few years later. The typically dignified Gehrig returned the favor by telling a reporter that Honus Wagner was the greatest player he ever saw.
5. Wally Pipp Didn’t Have a Headache
Wally Pipp was the starting first baseman for the Yankees in 1925. The story goes that he missed a game with a headache and because of it lost his starting job to the youngster Gehrig. It makes for a great story, but in reality, it was mostly due to Pipp’s poor play. The Yankees were floundering to start the 1925 season, and Wally was a big part of the problem with a recent three-week spell of anemic 0.181 hitting.
Miller Huggins, the Yankees’ manager, had to do something to get the team going, so he decided to insert the up and coming Gehrig into the lineup. Lou went 3 for 5 in his first start and never missed a game the rest of his career. The Yankees sold Pipp to Cincinnati in the offseason. He played three more years before retiring. The headache makes for an amusing story, but anyone who saw Lou hit ringing line drives all over the park knew it was only time before he would be the starter.
6. He Was Going to Be the Next Tarzan
The popular movie franchise was heading to a new studio, and the producers need to find a replacement for Johnny Weissmuller, who had been playing Tarzan for the past several years and was still under contract with the previous studio. Lou always had movie-star looks, so his agent convinced the reluctant player to pursue the opportunity to get into moving pictures.
Lou traveled to Hollywood and tried out for the role by dressing in a loincloth and swinging a fake wood club. However, he was rejected for the role because his thighs were considered too bulky and muscular to be attractive on the silver screen. He did end up making a film called Rawhide in 1938. It was a modern western where he played himself, Lou Gehrig. The film received average reviews, but Lou said he had a great time riding horses and shooting fake guns.
7. John McGraw Rejected Him as a Prospect
The legendary manager of the New York Giants took a look at Gehrig in 1921. Lou apparently hit numerous shots into the right-field stands during the audition, but he also let a grounder go through his legs, which was viewed by McGraw as an unforgivable sin. The manager was considered the best mind in baseball, but he loved the dead-ball era style of play and wasn’t looking for a hulking player that could only smash the ball. Unfortunately, because of this shortsightedness, the Hall of Fame manager lost out on getting the best first baseman of all time.
8. He Consulted With a Ouija Board
Gehrig was friends with a sportswriter who was convinced his wife had psychic powers. Lou and his wife Eleanor stayed with the couple before the 1939 season, and the paranormal topic came up. The Ouija board was soon brought out, and a spirit was consulted. The message YOU WILL SOON BE CALLED UPON TO FACE THE MOST DIFFICULT PROBLEM OF YOUR LIFE was spelled out for Eleanor Gehrig. She thought it might have been about her and Lou’s potential adoption of a child. However, the board said NO when asked.
Gehrig and his wife left for spring training a few days later, still puzzled over the meaning of the prediction. He would play only eight games that season before ALS robbed him of the strength to make even the most basic plays.
9. He Didn’t Know He Was Dying
Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS at the Mayo clinic in 1939. Afterward, he thought he maybe would need a cane in a few years and that he would eventually end up crippled and in a wheelchair. The fans thought ALS was a disease like polio, and they were all familiar with President Roosevelt and his survival from the disease. Nobody really knew what would happen with Lou. ALS was rare, and there were few ways to get information about it in an era before the internet.
From letters he wrote, Gehrig believed there were experimental treatments that would cure him like vitamin E megadoses and histamine injections, and he had a sense of optimism until the very end.
10. He Almost Didn’t Give His “Luckiest Man on Earth” Speech
One of the most famous speeches in the history of baseball almost never happened. When it was clear that Gehrig was no longer going to play baseball, the Yankees decided to honor him with a ceremony on July 4, 1939, between the games of a doubleheader.
After all the guests of honor, including the Babe, spoke, Lou shook his head no that he was declining to say anything. However, the fans kept chanting, “We want Lou!” and then Yankee manager Joe McCarthy encouraged him to speak. The guest of honor reluctantly stepped to the microphone and gave a heartfelt speech of gratitude that had grown men weeping.
Lou Gehrig Was a Fascinating Man
From these ten items, it’s clear that Lou Gehrig was neither dull or boring. He was a much more interesting and complicated person than I thought before reading about him. He was a sensitive person that handled an impossible situation more gracefully than seems possible. As great as he was at baseball, he was probably an even better person.