Lou Gehrig named 34th-greatest athlete of the century

Gehrig legacy one of irony
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

Irony, as we know, is part of life. And death. Is there a better word to use regarding Lou Gehrig?

Think of his nickname: "The Iron Horse." It implies endurance. It recalls an indestructible man, one who never called in sick for almost 14 years -- 2,130 consecutive games, as if we could ever forget that number?

Lou Gehrig 
Lou Gehrig, a man who made us forget Wally Pipp, also introduced us to a tragic disease.
And yet, at age 35, in what should have been the prime of his life, the Yankees first baseman contracted an incurable disease. Two years later, at 37, The Iron Horse was dead.

More irony. What is remembered most about the rock-sturdy man whom Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray called "Gibraltar in cleats?" Is it his 493 homers, his 1,990 runs batted in, his .340 batting average, his American League record 184 RBI in one year, his major league record of 23 grand slams? Is it his 13 consecutive seasons with 100 RBI and 100 runs scored, his 200 hits and 100 walks in the same season seven times, his two MVPs, his Triple Crown? Is it his 12 consecutive seasons of hitting .300, his 10 seasons of at least 30 homers, his averaging 153 RBI over an 11-year stretch, his .632 lifetime slugging percentage?

None of the above. Besides the streak, what we remember most about Gehrig is nothing that he accomplished with a bat. What we remember most about this quiet man of dignity is a speech. How ironic.

It was July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium, a little more than two months after he played his final game, less than a month after he had learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. There was Gehrig, surrounded by his teammates from the 1927 and 1939 Yankees, taking his cut at the microphone.

Shaking with emotion, he fought back tears as he kept his eyes focused on the ground. For a moment it looked as if Gehrig wouldn't make it to the plate. But manager Joe McCarthy whispered a few words to his favorite player, and Gehrig regained his composure. In a moment later captured by the Hollywood film "The Pride of the Yankees," starring Gary Cooper, Gehrig delivered an emotional farewell address, speaking slowly and stressing the appreciation he felt for all that was being done for him.

"For the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got," he told the hushed crowd. "Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

There weren't many dry eyes in the place when Gehrig concluded. The 61,808 fans and his former teammates knew they had been touched in a way they would never be touched again. After the tumult and shouting and crying ended, and the second game of the doubleheader finished, Gehrig walked out of Yankee Stadium with catcher Bill Dickey. With confidence in his voice, he told his close friend, "Bill, I'm going to remember this day for a long time."

It is ironic that it took the prospect of death to push Gehrig from the shadows. Almost his entire career was played in the wakes of other Yankee stars, not that Gehrig minded. The first shadow belonged to Babe Ruth, Gehrig's idol who was dominating the sport when the young left-handed slugger came on the scene.

"It's a pretty big shadow," Gehrig said. "It gives me lots of room to spread myself. ... Let's face it, I'm not a headline guy. I always knew that as long as I was following Babe to the plate I could have gone up there and stood on my head. No one would have noticed the difference. When the Babe was through swinging, whether he hit one or fanned, nobody paid any attention to the next hitter. They were all talking about what the Babe had done."

Gehrig never left that shadow. Only after Babe's career was winding down did Gehrig win a home-run title outright, with his 49 in 1934. (He shared the crown with Ruth in 1931 when each hit 46.) And when he won another homer title two years later, also with 49, Babe was retired as a player. Another shadow: When Gehrig batted .545 in the 1928 World Series, Ruth hit .625.

The gregarious Ruth and reticent Gehrig, Nos. 1 and 2 in your heart and 3 and 4 in the lineup, had been good friends early in Gehrig's career. But they split over a comment made by Gehrig's mother about Ruth's wife. For years the Bambino and The Iron Horse didn't talk to each other -- until Lou Gehrig Day, when they embraced again like best friends.

In 1936, a year after Ruth left the Yankees, Gehrig found himself playing in another shadow. This one belonged to a rookie. But Joe DiMaggio was no ordinary rookie, and he came with huge credentials.

Then there was June 3, 1932, when Gehrig gave his finest individual performance, becoming the first player this century to hit four home runs in a game. Again, he was overshadowed. The bigger story in New York that day was that the legendary John McGraw, in his 31st year as Giants manager, had resigned.

Born Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig II on June 19, 1903, to poor German immigrants inside the family's cramped apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, he weighed almost 14 pounds. Americanized, his name became Henry Louis, and then Lou. The Gehrigs had four children, but he was the only one to live past infancy.

He was labeled "the Babe Ruth of the schoolyards" after hitting a tremendous grand slam for his high school team in a special "national championship" game in Chicago. In the spring of 1923, he played for Columbia University. Despite his mother's wishes, he signed with the Yankees, receiving a $1,500 bonus.

After spending more time in the minors than with the Yankees in 1923 and 1924, he arrived in The Show to stay in 1925. On June 1, he pinch-hit for shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger and singled. It was the first of his 2,130 consecutive games. The next day, first baseman Wally Pipp had a headache, and Gehrig started at first base.

In Gehrig's 14 seasons as a regular, the Yankees won seven pennants and six World Series.

Gehrig was 6-feet tall and 200 pounds, with big shoulders, a broad back and powerful thighs. The pinstriped Yankees uniform made him look even better. And he played even better than he looked. It would not be until May 2, 1939, that Gehrig would miss a game.

With his batting average an unhealthy .143 (4-for-28) after eight games, Gehrig, suffering from an unexplained weakness and sluggishness, removed himself from the lineup. He told McCarthy that he thought it would be best for the club if somebody else played first base. He never played a major-league game again. (It wouldn't be until 1995 that Cal Ripken would break Gehrig's consecutive game streak.)

On June 19, on his 36th birthday, Gehrig left the Mayo Clinic with a sealed envelope. The results of the examination revealed he had ALS, which in lay terms is a form of infantile paralysis. The illness is now referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. "Mr. Gehrig will be unable to continue his active participation as a baseball player," the report concluded.

On Dec. 8, 1939, Gehrig, who had remained with the Yankees as the team captain, was elected to the Hall of Fame after the Baseball Writers Association of America waived the five-year waiting period. Only two players -- Hank Aaron (2,297) and Ruth (2,211) -- would ever drive in more runs than Gehrig.

The Pride of the Yankees died at his home in Riverdale, N.Y., on June 2, 1941, exactly 16 years to the day after he replaced Pipp at first base.

How ironic.