The Colgate Scene
January 2004

Triumph and Tragedy
Lou Gehrig was much more than the name of a disease

[Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum]

It was during the 1938 season when Lou Gehrig began showing the effects of the disease that was eventually diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Though he continued to play every day, as he had since 1925, he was less productive than he had ever been. A player in 2003 who matched Gehrig's 1938 statistics -- .295 average, 29 home runs, 114 runs batted in, and 115 runs scored -- would be in line for a multi-million-dollar contract, but for Gehrig those numbers represented the worst season since his rookie year. In the spring of 1939, he seemed weak, his coordination clumsy, his reflexes shot. Eight games into the season, he took himself out of the lineup, ending his streak at 2,130 consecutive games played. Weeks later, doctors at the Mayo Clinic told him there was no cure for his disease. Within two years he was dead, just shy of his 38th birthday.

The son of German immigrants, Gehrig grew up in New York City and attended Columbia University, where he played baseball and football. After his second year at Columbia, poverty and family illnesses compelled him to accept a contract offer from the New York Yankees, and he made his major league debut in 1923. In 1925, he took over at first base and quickly established himself as second only to teammate Babe Ruth in slugging prowess. He topped 100 runs batted in a record 13 years in a row, had more than 200 hits in eight seasons, and won the American League Triple Crown in 1934 (leading the league with a .363 average, 49 home runs, and 165 RBI). For a dozen years (1926-37), he averaged 37 home runs, 150 runs batted in, 141 runs scored, 200 hits, and a .347 average. Even though his career ended before he was 37 years old, he ranks third all-time in runs batted in, ninth in runs scored, third in slugging percentage, sixth in extra-base hits, and 15th in batting with a lifetime average of .340. When writers and other baseball veterans choose their all-time teams, Gehrig is named the first baseman more often than anybody else.


[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
As impressive as his talent was (his Yankees teams won seven pennants and six World Series), Gehrig was esteemed just as highly during his career for his character. He was the perfect Apollonian counterpoint to Babe Ruth's Dionysian excesses. Gehrig was respected for his quiet good nature, determination, integrity, and humility. Dubbed the "Iron Horse" for his endurance, he anchored the lineup and became the team's first captain as the Yankees moved from the Ruth years to the Joe DiMaggio era (Ruth left after 1934, DiMaggio arrived in 1936). Much like the man who eventually broke his consecutive games streak, Cal Ripken, but a better player, Gehrig was always willing and able to play through minor injuries to help his team. In Most Valuable Player balloting between 1931 and 1937, he never finished lower than fifth in the voting, winning the award in 1936.

This combination of reliability, indestructibility, and consistent excellence made Gehrig one of the most popular players of his time in the eyes of fans, teammates, and the press. Thus the suddenness of his collapse was all the more shocking. At first, fans were heartened by reports that Gehrig had a "mild" case of infantile paralysis; it was the custom of the time to shield the public from instances of fatal diseases. On July 4, 1939, two months after his last game, Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium and gave the speech that epitomized his nobility and courage, declaring, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named him parole commissioner, and Gehrig continued to serve the public until his strength failed. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in a special election held in December 1939, and has been honored ever since as one of baseball's greatest players and men.

Gabriel Schechter is the author of Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw's Giants and Unhittable! Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons.
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