06/18/2003 9:48 PM ET
Gehrig's shining legacy of courage
Yankee icon remains an American hero
To fully appreciate the legacy that Henry Louis Gehrig left behind, one truly has to look at the beginning, the middle and the end.
The beginning was 100 years ago, on June 19, 1903, in New York, where a baseball team now known as the Yankees was playing its inaugural season. A 14-pound boy, a Big Apple indeed, was born in Manhattan's Yorkville district to German immigrants Heinrich and Christina Gehrig. "Little" Lou would be the only one of their four children to survive past infancy; one died before him and two after him.
The middle was a majestic baseball career with those Yankees that yielded 493 home runs, 13 consecutive 100-RBI seasons, a .340 career average, six World Series championships and an unthinkable streak of 2,130 consecutive games played. The Babe got the headlines; the Iron Horse just got it done.
The end was in 1939, a paradox of a lifetime. A giant of a baby, a giant of a ballplayer, known in the beginning and the middle for his persistence, health and staying power, Gehrig was diagnosed with a degenerative muscle disease that the Mayo Clinic reported to the Yankees that summer as "amyotrophic lateral sclerosis". With the most famous speech in sports, Lou Gehrig, barely 36, bade farewell to all on that last Fourth of July at Yankee Stadium. Within two years, he was gone.
But never to be forgotten.
Model of consistency
"Gehrig was a guy who went out there and enjoyed playing the game," Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton says today. "He went out there and played as long and as hard as he could. I go out there and play every day, even if something is bothering me because you never know when the game, or even life itself, gets taken away."
"Day in, day out, he typified back then what today's Yankees think of as Yankees, a guy going out and playing hard every single day, making no excuses," adds Tino Martinez, one of those who later filled Gehrig's shoes at first base in the Bronx. "He just knew how to play the game."
If there were any 100th-birthday wishes that Lou Gehrig could have made, then one of them might have been to hear words just like those. To know that generations of players after him would love the game -- and life -- the way he loved it.
The average person has a great admiration for someone who quietly and passionately goes about his job every day and every year, and we saw that just last year. MLB.com users determined that the Most Memorable Moment in Major League history was when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Gehrig's consecutive-game record.
That speaks volumes about what Gehrig meant to the game. His consistency was something that even he had taken for granted while he was building a streak that became his biggest statistical achievement. In Frank Graham's 1942 biography, "Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero," there is a story that bears this out. In 1933, while the Yankees were in Washington, Dan Daniel of New York's World-Telegram asked Gehrig in a hotel lobby: "Do you know how many games you have played in a row?"
Gehrig shook his head. "No, I don't. Come to think of it, it must run up in the hundreds somewhere." Told that it was roughly 1,250 at that time, then 57 away from the record set by former Red Sox and Yankees shortstop Everett Scott in 1925, Gehrig said: "Gosh! Why I never thought of that.. I had no idea."
Daniel then asked Gehrig the obvious question: "What do you play ball every day for, anyhow? Why don't you take a day off once in a while?"
It was the only way Gehrig knew. He proceeded to tell a story about when he was in grammar school and was ill one morning. His mother had to work as the Gehrigs tried to eke out a living, and before leaving for her job she "said I would have to stay in bed." Lou went to school after she left, and later that day his mother had to go to the school to pull him out and bring him back home. "I never had missed a day in school and I felt I just had to be there," he said. "I guess it's . . . well . . . just like me. . . . The way I've always been and, I guess, the way I'll always be."
It was that way ever since Gehrig replaced Wally Pipp as the Yankees' starting first baseman that day in 1925, and only the ALS could take him out of the lineup. Look at Gehrig's career stats for games played. The total was 2,164. That means that all but 34 were in consecutive fashion, and you can chalk those up to his early days of breaking in as a bench player. His career was nearly a complete streak.
Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee had played in 282 consecutive games through Wednesday, the longest active streak in the National League, and he shares that appreciation for the magnitude of Gehrig's run.
"I can't comprehend it," Lee said. "That's years and years and years of never missing a game. You have to be fortunate not to have one injury, and not missing a game at all. To be able to play that long and not ever being benched, that's pretty impressive. The last couple of years, I've had some bruises and knicks and knacks. I'm sure in more than 10 years, he had to have played through some pretty serious things."
Life in the shadow
Gehrig first appeared with the Bronx Bombers late in the 1923 season, at a time when Babe Ruth and America were roaring. In '25, when Gehrig joined the Sultan of Swat as a regular, opponents braced for what would become the most feared back-to-back hitting combination to this day. The Yanks were the first pro sports team to wear jersey numbers, making it easier for broadcasters to identify, and the numbers represented their spot in the batting order. Ruth was No. 3 and Gehrig was No. 4.
Ruth was the flamboyant slugger, basking in the spotlight and living life as hard as he belted fastballs. Gehrig was the model of consistency, around the clock. He had slashing power, spraying homers to all fields, and he was only happy to work in a relative shadow. Consider what happened at the 1932 World Series in Chicago. Ruth hit his "Called Shot" homer there off Cubs pitcher Charlie Root, and the legend has only grown over time. Does anyone remember that Gehrig proceeded to homer off Root in the next at-bat while Wrigley was buzzing? Or that Ruth and Gehrig already had gone deep together earlier in the same game?
In his 1990 biography, "Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig In His Time," Ray Robinson called them the "odd couple." He wrote that "there was too much difference in temperament and character for a firm bond of friendship to have formed." But there certainly was mutual respect, and right from the start.
Yankees manager Miller Huggins walked Gehrig out toward the batting cage in the rookie's first day in The Show, and Gehrig had not brought along a favorite bat of his own on that nickel Subway ride to the stadium. So he innocently picked one out from a bunch of bats that were resting against the cage. Unbeknownst to Lou, it was the Babe's favorite, all 48 ounces of it. Gehrig used that bat to whack BP pitch after pitch into the bleachers, traditionally only Ruth's area of reach. Ruth might have told anyone else to leave that bat alone; all he said to the rook that day was: "Hiya, keed."
There was room for both in the Yankee lineup, and room for both in great Major League lore. There always still seemed to be runs to drive in. That's one of the amazing things about Gehrig's career numbers. He hit behind Ruth and (later) Joe DiMaggio, two fabulous base-cleaners, and yet his RBI numbers were consistently through the roof. Gehrig drove in 184 runs in 1931, still an American League record.
Just think about that 1927 season. Gehrig's home run number bulged to 47, and only Ruth ever had hit more. Gehrig's RBIs soared to 175, a record at the time, and even more astounding when you consider that he stepped to the plate 60 times after congratulating Ruth on having just cleared the bases.
"He's one of the greatest of all time, streak or no streak," Orioles veteran Jeff Conine says. "He had like five seasons of over 170 RBIs. (It was actually five with 159 or more.) That's ridiculous. He averaged almost an RBI a game, that's absurd. You think of the streak when you think of him, but I think he's one of the best ever, streak or no streak. I think he's more famous for the streak than he should be. He was that good. It's a monumental feat. But to put up the numbers he did injured on more than one occasion is remarkable."
What might have been
"Gehrig didn't feel sorry for himself. He lived up to who he is. He was an American hero. That's why his farewell speech will always be known."
-- Randy Wolf
Gehrig is generally considered one of the 10 best Major Leaguers of all-time, and it is fascinating to wonder what might have happened had a disease not stolen the rest of his career. On this 100th birthday, stop for a moment and play what-if.
Gehrig entered that final 1939 season with a streak of 2,122 consecutive games played. He had said he thought 2,500 was an attainable goal. Had he remained healthy, it is reasonable to assume that no one in the Yankee organization would have stood in the way of that. Assuming the Yanks played the full 154-game schedule from 1939-41, Gehrig already would have reached that goal by the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
Conservatively speaking, it would have been reasonable to project another 500 hits, 350 runs, 90 doubles, 30 triples, 100 homers, 350 RBIs and 300 walks in those three years. He would have passed Ty Cobb as the all-time leader in runs scored. He would have been around the 600-homer mark. He would be the all-time leader in RBIs, not Hank Aaron. Gehrig might have been right behind the Babe again, as usual, as subsequent generations of fans debated the best of all-time.
Although Gehrig would have been 38, past draft age, those who knew Lou say he probably would have volunteered for the Navy at the start of World War II. So those three seasons probably would have been it. And then, perhaps in the mid-'40s, Yankee Stadium might have seen a Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.
Instead, of course, Gehrig's fans were watching Gary Cooper star as him in "Pride of the Yankees," one of the most-watched sports movies. Now it is 2003, and 100 years later we are celebrating a hero's birth while also paying attention to the disease that took his life. Gehrig's name may have more importance than ever. On one day last summer, a different celebrity at each Major League ballpark gave a rendition of Gehrig's "luckiest man" speech. ALS is a disease that has touched many lives since his. Last weekend, for example, maybe the biggest story at golf's U.S. Open was Tom Watson's longtime caddy, Bruce Edwards, who was diagnosed in January with ALS.
Muscles were only part of the reason for Gehrig's phenomenal baseball career. In the end, when ALS rendered those muscles increasingly useless, his courage and inspiring approach to life were still there. And so were his fans.
Graham wrote in that 1942 biography: "He left the shining legacy of courage." Randy Wolf, the current Phillies pitcher, is among those who will never forget. "Gehrig didn't feel sorry for himself," he said. "He lived up to who he is. He was an American hero. That's why his farewell speech will always be known."
Mark Newman is a writer for MLB.com. Joe Frisaro, Matthew Leach, Ken Mandel, Adam McCalvy, Gary Washburn and Dan Hyatt contributed to this story, which was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.