Lou Gehrig

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Gehrig was the bulwark of the New York Yankees baseball dynasty of the 1920’s, including the famed Murderer’s Row team of 1927, and he played in 2,130 consecutive major league games, an endurance record unequaled in baseball history.

Early Life

Henry Louis Gehrig was born June 19, 1903, in New York’s Upper East Side. His parents, Heinrich and Christina Gehrig, were German immigrants whose two other children died at a very young age. They spoke no English upon their arrival in New York, and their lives were filled with deprivation and poverty. Lou’s father was never able to work consistently at his craft and often drank beer and played pinochle at the neighborhood tavern. Lou’s mother was the dominating force of his life. She worked at many jobs, such as domestic, cook, and laundress, and Lou often helped and ran her errands. Christina Gehrig’s driving ambition was to provide Lou with an education so that he might become an engineer and escape the cycle of poverty that had engulfed her and her husband.

As he grew up on the East Side, Lou was a profoundly shy “momma’s boy.” He wore hand-me-down clothes and spoke with a German accent, leading his peers to taunt him. This formative period of his life left him with a lack of self-confidence that he would never overcome completely. His mother, however, emphasized the idea that hard work and dedication to his studies were keys to success in America. Lou was so proud of his perfect attendance record in elementary school that he would not allow pneumonia to keep him out of school.

Gehrig was a good and attentive student, but he excelled in sports. At this time, his father gave him a right-handed catcher’s mitt for Christmas. Although he was a southpaw, Gehrig was very proud of the glove and played ball with neighborhood children. He was big and awkward, not a natural-born baseball player. Yet his father helped him to build up his physique and muscle coordination, and Gehrig became very active in school sports, particularly track, shot put, and baseball. His proudest moment occurred when he helped his team win New York’s Park Department League baseball championship.

At the High School of Commerce, and despite his mother’s fears that sports would distract her son from his studies, Gehrig became the star of the school’s basketball, soccer, and baseball teams. Commerce’s soccer team, for example, won the city’s championship three consecutive years. Gehrig played first base for the baseball team and became the team’s leading slugger. During his senior year, the baseball team won the city’s championship, which entitled them to play Lane High School, the champions of Chicago. Gehrig hit a grand-slam home run to help his team emerge victorious.

Gehrig’s baseball exploits at Commerce enabled him to enter Columbia University in 1921 on an athletic scholarship. His parents were employed at a fraternity house, and Gehrig helped out by waiting on tables. When he had some spare time, he played baseball with members of the fraternity. He inadvertently jeopardized his scholarship, however, when he signed a contract with the New York Giants under manager John McGraw, who sent him to Hartford, Connecticut, in the Eastern League. When Gehrig’s professional contract became known, Columbia University officials attempted to strip him of his amateur status. Friends intervened on behalf of Gehrig, however, and his amateur ranking was restored on the condition that he sit out his freshman year.

Life’s Work

By this time, Gehrig was six feet tall with massive shoulders and weighed two hundred pounds. He played fullback on Columbia’s football team and pitched and played first base on the baseball team. He was called “Columbia Lou” as his hitting exploits received increasing attention from fans. During the spring of 1923, Paul Krichell, a scout for the New York Yankees, was so impressed with Gehrig’s hitting that he predicted that he would become another Babe Ruth. Gehrig was offered a bonus and a contract to complete the 1923 season with the Yankees. The money was so good that even his mother approved of his withdrawal from Columbia. Thus, at the age of twenty, Gehrig began his professional baseball career.

During the early 1920’s, Yankee manager Miller Huggins sought to build a nucleus for a baseball dynasty. Babe Ruth was the heart of the team, and Gehrig found it difficult to find a place for himself. First base was Gehrig’s position, but veteran Wally Pipp was at the height of his career and had a lock on it. Accordingly, Gehrig spent most of the 1923 and 1924 seasons in Hartford, where he hit well over .300 and drove out sixty-one home runs over two years.

In 1925, Gehrig’s break finally came. On June 1, 1925, he pinch-hit for the shortstop. On June 2, 1925, Pipp was hit in the head by a fastball during batting practice and was unable to start the game. Huggins inserted Gehrig into the starting lineup, and Pipp never played first base for the Yankees again. Gehrig started every game for fourteen years, a total of 2,130 consecutive games, an endurance record which has yet to be approached. He became the Iron Horse of the New York Yankees.

Gehrig enjoyed a solid rookie year. He hit .295, with twenty home runs, twenty-three doubles, nine triples, and sixty-eight runs-batted-in (RBI’s), for a...

(The entire section is 2224 words.)