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The Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig

"I'm not a headline guy. I know that as long as I was following (Babe) Ruth to the plate I could have stood on my head and no one would have known the difference." - Lou Gehrig

Lou Gehrig's performance on the field made him an American icon, but it was his tragic and untimely death that made him unforgettable. A real-life folk hero, Gehrig was everything a professional baseball player should and shouldn't be. A quiet man who "carried a big stick" Gehrig was a blue-collar champion. His records and statistics spoke louder than his actions and his career numbers still rank among the highest in the history of major league baseball. As a member of baseball's most storied franchise, his accomplishments with the first Yankees dynasty are without question. His dedication to the game was certainly second to none, yet beyond baseball, there was nothing newsworthy or spectacular about him. In the words of his widow Eleanor, "He was just a square, honest guy."

Simply stated, Lou Gehrig was a baseball player…a great baseball player.

All-Century Teammate, Hall of Famer, Triple Crown Winner, All-Star, World Series Champion, Most Valuable Player… these are just some of the terms used to describe the one they called "The Iron Horse". Unlike the players of today, Gehrig spent his entire professional career with the same team while wearing the blue pinstripes in his hometown of New York City. His life story represented the "American Dream" and read more like a Hollywood movie script. Surprisingly more fact than fiction, it was appropriately translated into THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, which was nominated for eleven Academy Awards in 1943 and is still regarded by many today as the finest baseball movie ever made. His statistics spoke volumes as well and continue to prove that his impact on our national pastime remains second to none by a player from his era.

For starters, his lifetime batting average was .340, fifteenth all-time highest, and he amassed more than 400 total bases on five occasions. A player with few peers, Gehrig remains one of only seven players with more than 100 extra-base hits in one season. During his career he averaged 147 RBIs a year and his 184 RBIs in 1931 still remains the highest single-season total in American League history. Always at the top of his game, Gehrig won the Triple Crown in 1934, with a .363 average, 49 homers, and 165 RBIs, and was chosen Most Valuable Player in both 1927 and 1936. Unbelievable for a man of his size, #4 stole home 15 times, and he batted .361 in 34 World Series games with 10 homers, eight doubles, and 35 RBIs. Still standing is his record for career grand slams with 23. Gehrig hit 73 three-run homers, as well as 166 two-run shots, giving him the highest average of RBIs (per homer) of any player with more than 300 home runs. Not bad for a guy who originally entered Columbia University with the intention of becoming an engineer!

For most ballplayers, this would have been more than enough fare for a ticket to Cooperstown, but for Gehrig, the aforementioned stats are only a glimpse into his brilliant career. Still the only player in history to drive in 500 runs in three years, he also hit 493 home runs (while playing first), the most by any first baseman in history. On June 3, 1932, Gehrig became the first American Leaguer to hit four home runs in a game and he was the first athlete to have his number officially retired in 1939. A true thoroughbred, he was christened the "Iron Horse" when he held the "unbreakable" record of 2,130 consecutive games played, until 1998, when it was finally topped by another "Iron Man" named Cal Ripken Jr. A tireless worker, Gehrig played every game for more than 13 years despite a broken thumb, a broken toe, and back spasms. Later in his career his hands were X-rayed, and doctors were able to spot 17 different fractures that had "healed" while he continued to play. This toughness could be attributed to the fact that he was the only surviving child (out of 4) of hard-working German immigrants. Somehow though, even his resilient exterior could not overcome the growing sickness he hid within.

Things began to change in 1938 as Gehrig struggled and fell below .300 for the first time since 1925. He appeared clumsy and sluggish on (and off) the field and it was painfully clear that there was something wrong. He lacked his usual dominant swing and many pitches that he would have normally hit out of the ballpark fizzled into meager fly outs. Initially, doctors diagnosed him with having a gall bladder problem, and put him on a bland diet, which only made him weaker. Determined to work through his pain, he managed to play in the first eight games of the 1939 season, but fatigue weighed on his bat and he was barely able to field the ball. Gehrig knew that when his fellow Yankees had to congratulate him for stumbling into an average catch, it was time for him to leave. Eventually, he took himself out of the game and unfortunately, he would never return.

After a battery of tests, doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed Gehrig as having a very rare form of degenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The prognosis was terminal and there was no chance that he would ever play baseball again. Aware that his days were numbered, he continued to carry himself with unwavering dignity, despite being unable to conceal his failing health.

Local sports writer Paul Gallico suggested that the team should have a recognition day to honor Gehrig on July 4, 1939. With more than 62,000 fans in attendance, Gehrig spoke his immortal words of thanks in one of the most heartfelt speeches ever given. As a testament to his courage and selflessness, he opened his remarks with the famous line, "Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth."

As a fitting tribute, Gehrig was elected to the Hall of Fame that December. During the last months of his life, he worked on youth projects for New York until he was unable to walk. He died in 1941, at the age of 37. His sudden death brought national attention to this relatively unknown affliction known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and the illness has since been renamed "Lou Gehrig's Disease". His position in the public eye helped to inspire more intensive research and today the ALS medical community is hopefully getting closer to finding a cure.

Lou Gehrig accomplished more in his short life than most athletes could ever dream. He was a pure ballplayer at a time when the game was pure. As the years go by, so does the distance between young fans and the players of Gehrig's era. Their game was timeless and we may never experience baseball as it was experienced back then.


Copyright 2006 by Michael Aubrecht
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