Henry Louis “Lou” Gehrig (June 19, 1903 – June 2, 1941), nicknamed “The Iron Horse” for his durability, was an American Major League Baseball first baseman. He played his entire 17-year baseball career for the New York Yankees (1923–1939). Gehrig set several major league records. He holds the record for most career grand slams (23). Gehrig is chiefly remembered for his prowess as a hitter, his consecutive games-played record and its subsequent longevity, and the pathos of his farewell from baseball at age 36, when he was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Gehrig was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. In 1969 he was voted the greatest first baseman of all time by the Baseball Writers’ Association, and was the leading vote-getter on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, chosen by fans in 1999.
A native of New York City, he played for the New York Yankees until his career was cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly known in the United States and Canada as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Over a 15-season span from 1925 through 1939, he played in 2,130 consecutive games, the streak ending only when Gehrig became disabled by the fatal neuromuscular disease that claimed his life two years later. His streak, long considered one of baseball’s few unbreakable records, stood for 56 years, until finally broken by Cal Ripken, Jr., of the Baltimore Orioles on September 6, 1995.
Gehrig accumulated 1,995 runs batted in (RBI) in 17 seasons, with a career batting average of .340, on-base percentage of .447, and slugging percentage of .632. Three of the top six RBI seasons in baseball history belong to Gehrig. He was selected to each of the first seven All-Star games (though he did not play in the 1939 game, as he retired one week before it was held), and he won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1927 and 1936. He was also a Triple Crown winner in 1934, leading the American League in batting average, home runs, and RBIs.
Gehrig was born in the Yorkville in the East Harlem, weighing almost 14 pounds (6.4 kg) at birth, the second child out of four to German immigrants. His father Heinrich was a sheet metal worker by trade, but frequently unemployed due to alcoholism, and his mother Christina was a maid, the main breadwinner and disciplinarian in the family.His two sisters died from whooping cough and measles at an early age.Young Gehrig helped his mother with her work, doing tasks such as folding laundry and picking up supplies from the local stores. In 1910, Gehrig lived with his parents at 2266 Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. In 1920 the family resided at 2079 8th Avenue in Manhattan.
Gehrig first garnered national attention for his baseball ability while playing in a game at Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field) on June 26, 1920. Gehrig’s New York School of Commerce team was playing a team from Chicago’s Lane Tech High School, in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 spectators.With his team winning 8–6 in the top of the ninth inning, Gehrig hit a grand slam completely out of the major league park, an unheard-of feat for a 17-year old.
Lou Gehrig attended PS 132 in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, then to Commerce High School, graduating in 1921. Gehrig then studied at Columbia University for two years, although he did not graduate.While attending Columbia, he was a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity. Initially, Gehrig could not play intercollegiate baseball for the Columbia Lions because he had played baseball for the minor-league Hartford Senators of the Eastern League in the summer before his freshman year.At the time, he was unaware that doing so jeopardized his eligibility to play any collegiate sport. However, Gehrig was ruled eligible to play on the Lions’ football team and was a standout fullback. Later, he gained baseball eligibility and played on the Lions team.
On April 18, 1923, the same day that Yankee Stadium opened for the first time and Babe Ruth inaugurated the new stadium with a home run, Columbia pitcher Gehrig struck out seventeen Williams College batters to set a team record; however, Columbia lost the game. Only a handful of collegians were at South Field that day, but more significant was the presence of Yankee scout Paul Krichell, who had been trailing Gehrig for some time. It was not Gehrig’s pitching that particularly impressed him; rather, it was Gehrig’s powerful left-handed hitting. During the time Krichell had been observing the young Columbia ballplayer, Gehrig had hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on various Eastern campuses, including a 450-foot (137 m) home run on April 28 at Columbia’s South Field which landed at 116th Street and Broadway. Within two months, Gehrig had signed a Yankee contract. Gehrig returned to minor-league Hartford to play parts of two seasons, 1923 and 1924, batting .344 and crashing 61 home runs in 193 games. (It was the only time Lou ever played any level of ball — sandlot, high school, collegiate or pro — for a non-New York City-based team.)
Gehrig joined the New York Yankees midway through the 1923 season and made his debut on June 15, 1923, as a pinch hitter. In his first two seasons, he saw limited playing time, mostly as a pinch hitter — he played in only 23 games and was not on the Yankees’ 1923 World Series roster. In 1925, he batted .295, with 20 home runs and 68 runs batted in (RBIs).
The 23-year-old Yankee first baseman’s breakout season came in 1926, when he batted .313 with 47 doubles, an American League-leading 20 triples, 16 home runs, and 112 RBIs. In the 1926 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Gehrig hit .348 with two doubles and 4 RBIs. The Cardinals won a seven-game series four games to three.
In 1927, Gehrig put up one of the greatest seasons by any batter in history, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 runs batted in (surpassing teammate Babe Ruth’s 171 six years earlier), and a .765 slugging percentage. His 117 extra-base hits that season are second all-time to Babe Ruth’s 119 extra-base hits in 1921and his 447 total bases are third all-time, after Babe Ruth’s 457 total bases in 1921 and Rogers Hornsby’s 450 in 1922. Gehrig’s production helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the AL pennant, and a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1927 World Series. Although the AL recognized his season by naming him league MVP, it was overshadowed by Babe Ruth’s 60 home run season and the overall dominance of the 1927 Yankees, a team often cited as having the greatest lineup of all time — the famed Murderers’ Row.
Despite playing in the shadow of the larger-than-life Ruth for two-thirds of his career, Gehrig was one of the highest run producers in baseball history: he had 509 RBIs during a three-season stretch (1930–32). Only two other players, Jimmie Foxx with 507 and Hank Greenberg with 503, have surpassed 500 RBIs in any three seasons; their totals were non-consecutive. (Babe Ruth had 498.) Playing 14 complete seasons, Gehrig had 13 consecutive seasons with 100 or more RBIs (a major league record shared with Foxx until eclipsed in 2010 by Alex Rodriguez). Gehrig had six seasons where he batted .350 or better (with a high of .379 in 1930), plus a seventh season at .349. He had seven seasons with 150 or more RBIs, 11 seasons with over 100 walks, eight seasons with 200 or more hits, and five seasons with more than 40 home runs. Gehrig led the American League in runs scored four times, home runs three times, and RBIs five times. His 184 RBIs in 1931 remain the American League record as of 2010 and rank second all-time to Hack Wilson’s 191 RBIs in 1930. On the single-season RBI list, Gehrig ranks second, fifth (175), and sixth (174), with four additional seasons over 150 RBI. He also holds the baseball record for most seasons with 400 total bases or more, accomplishing this feat five times in his career. He batted fourth in the lineup to Ruth’s third in the order, making it impractical to give up an intentional walk to Ruth.
During the 10 seasons (1925–1934) in which Gehrig and Ruth were both Yankees and played a majority of the games, Gehrig had more home runs than Ruth only once, in 1934, when he hit 49 compared to Ruth’s 22 (Ruth played 125 games that year). They tied at 46 in 1931. Ruth had 424 home runs compared to Gehrig’s 347. However, Gehrig outpaced Ruth in RBI, 1,436 to 1,316. Gehrig had a .343 batting average, compared to .338 for Ruth.
In 1932, Gehrig became the first player of the 20th century to hit four home runs in a game, accomplishing the feat on June 3 against the Philadelphia Athletics. He narrowly missed getting a fifth home run in the game when Athletics center fielder Al Simmons made a leaping catch of another fly ball at the center field fence. After the game, manager Joe McCarthy told him, “Well, Lou, nobody can take today away from you.” On the same day, however, John McGraw announced his retirement after thirty years of managing the New York Giants. McGraw, not Gehrig, got the main headlines in the sports sections the next day. The following year, in September 1933, Gehrig married Eleanor Twitchell, the daughter of Chicago Parks Commissioner Frank Twitchell.
In a 1936 World Series cover story about Lou Gehrig and Carl Hubbell, Time proclaimed Gehrig “the game’s No. 1 batsman”, who “takes boyish pride in banging a baseball as far, and running around the bases as quickly, as possible”.
Seven of the American League’s 1937 All-Star players, from left to right Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. All seven would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame.
On June 1, 1925, Gehrig entered the game as a pinch hitter, substituting for shortstop Paul “Pee Wee” Wanninger. The next day, June 2, Yankee manager Miller Huggins started Gehrig in place of regular first baseman Wally Pipp. Pipp was in a slump, as were the Yankees as a team, so Huggins made several lineup changes to boost their performance. Fourteen years later, Gehrig had played 2,130 consecutive games. In a few instances, Gehrig managed to keep the streak intact through pinch hitting appearances and fortuitous timing; in others, the streak continued despite injuries. For example:
- On April 23, 1933, an errant pitch by Washington Senators hurler, Earl Whitehill, struck Gehrig in the head. Although almost knocked unconscious, Gehrig recovered and remained in the game.
- On June 14, 1933, Gehrig was ejected from a game, along with manager Joe McCarthy, but he had already been at bat, so he got credit for playing the game.
- On July 13, 1934, Gehrig suffered a “lumbago attack” and had to be assisted off the field. In the next day’s away game, he was listed in the lineup as “shortstop”, batting lead-off. In his first and only plate appearance, he singled and was promptly replaced by a pinch runner to rest his throbbing back, never taking the field. A&E’s Biography speculated that this illness, which he also described as “a cold in his back”, might have been the first symptom of his debilitating disease.
In addition, X-rays taken late in his life disclosed that Gehrig had sustained several fractures during his playing career, although he remained in the lineup despite those previously undisclosed injuries. On the other hand, the streak was helped when Yankees general manager Ed Barrow postponed a game as a rainout on a day when Gehrig was sick with the flu—even though it was not raining.
Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played stood until September 6, 1995, when Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it.
Although his performance in the second half of the 1938 season was slightly better than in the first half, Gehrig reported physical changes at the midway point. At the end of that season, he said, “I tired mid-season. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t get going again.” Although his final 1938 statistics were above average (.295 batting average, 114 RBI, 170 hits, .523 slugging percentage, 689 plate appearances with only 75 strikeouts, and 29 home runs), they were significantly down from his 1937 season, in which he batted .351 and slugged .643. In the 1938 World Series, he had four hits in 14 at-bats, all singles.
When the Yankees began their 1939 spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, it was clear that Gehrig no longer possessed his once-formidable power. Even Gehrig’s base running was affected, and at one point he collapsed at Al Lang Field, then the Yankees’ spring training park.By the end of spring training, Gehrig had not hit a home run.Throughout his career, Gehrig was considered an excellent baserunner, but as the 1939 season got under way, his coordination and speed had deteriorated significantly.
By the end of April, his statistics were the worst of his career, with one RBI and a .143 batting average. Fans and the press openly speculated on Gehrig’s abrupt decline. James Kahn, a reporter who wrote often about Gehrig, said in one article:
I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing. I have seen ballplayers ‘go’ overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done. But they were simply washed up as ballplayers. It’s something deeper than that in this case, though. I have watched him very closely and this is what I have seen: I have seen him time a ball perfectly, swing on it as hard as he can, meet it squarely — and drive a soft, looping fly over the infield. In other words, for some reason that I do not know, his old power isn’t there… He is meeting the ball, time after time, and it isn’t going anywhere.
He was indeed meeting the ball, with only one strikeout in 28 at-bats; however, Joe McCarthy found himself resisting pressure from Yankee management to switch Gehrig to a part-time role. Things came to a head when Gehrig had to struggle to make a routine put-out at first base. The pitcher, Johnny Murphy, had to wait for Gehrig to drag himself over to the bag so he could field the throw. Murphy said, “Nice play, Lou.”
On April 30, Gehrig went hitless against the Washington Senators. Gehrig had just played his 2,130th consecutive major league game.
On May 2, the next game after a day off, Gehrig approached McCarthy before the game in Detroit against the Tigers and said, “I’m benching myself, Joe,” telling the Yankees’ skipper that he was doing so “for the good of the team.” McCarthy acquiesced, putting Ellsworth “Babe” Dahlgren in at first base, and also said that whenever Gehrig wanted to play again, the position was his. Gehrig himself took the lineup card out to the shocked umpires before the game, ending the fourteen-year streak. Before the game began, the Briggs Stadium announcer told the fans, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time Lou Gehrig’s name will not appear on the Yankee lineup in 2,130 consecutive games.” The Detroit Tigers’ fans gave Gehrig a standing ovation while he sat on the bench with tears in his eyes. A wire service photograph of Gehrig reclining against the dugout steps with a stoic expression appeared the next day in the nation’s newspapers. Other than his retirement ceremony, it is the most-reproduced and best-remembered visual image of Gehrig.
Gehrig stayed with the Yankees as team captain for the rest of the season, but never played in a major league game again.
As Lou Gehrig’s debilitation became steadily worse (he stumbled over curbs, fumbled with the baseball, and even slipped and fell while running bases), his wife Eleanor called the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Her call was transferred to Charles William Mayo, who had been following Gehrig’s career and his mysterious loss of strength. Mayo told Eleanor to bring Gehrig as soon as possible.
Eleanor and Gehrig flew to Rochester from Chicago, where the Yankees were playing at the time, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on June 13, 1939. After six days of extensive testing at Mayo Clinic, the diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed on June 19, Gehrig’s 36th birthday. The prognosis was grim: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of less than three years, although there would be no impairment of mental functions. Eleanor Gehrig was told that the cause of ALS was unknown but it was painless, non-contagious and cruel — the motor function of the central nervous system is destroyed but the mind remains fully aware to the end.
At Eleanor’s request, the Mayo doctors intentionally withheld his grim prognosis from Gehrig. He often wrote letters to Eleanor, and in one such note written shortly afterwards, said (in part):
The bad news is lateral sclerosis, in our language chronic infantile paralysis. There isn’t any cure… there are very few of these cases. It is probably caused by some germ…Never heard of transmitting it to mates… There is a 50–50 chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years. Playing is out of the question…
Following Gehrig’s visit to the Mayo Clinic, he briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. As his train pulled into Union Station, he was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but he leaned forward to his companion, a reporter, and said, “They’re wishing me luck — and I’m dying.”
On June 21, the New York Yankees announced Gehrig’s retirement and proclaimed July 4, 1939, “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” at Yankee Stadium. Between games of the Independence Day doubleheader against the Washington Senators, the poignant ceremonies were held on the diamond. In its coverage the following day, The New York Times said it was “perhaps as colorful and dramatic a pageant as ever was enacted on a baseball field [as] 61,808 fans thundered a hail and farewell.”Dignitaries extolled the dying slugger and the members of the 1927 Yankees World Championship team, known as “Murderer’s Row”, attended the ceremonies. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called Gehrig “the greatest prototype of good sportsmanship and citizenship” and Postmaster General James Farley concluded his speech by predicting, “For generations to come, boys who play baseball will point with pride to your record.”
Yankees Manager Joe McCarthy, struggling to control his emotions, then spoke of Lou Gehrig, with whom there was a close, almost father and son-like bond. After describing Gehrig as “the finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman, and citizen that baseball has ever known”, McCarthy could stand it no longer. Turning tearfully to Gehrig, the manager said, “Lou, what else can I say except that it was a sad day in the life of everybody who knew you when you came into my hotel room that day in Detroit and told me you were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God, man, you were never that.”
The Yankees retired Gehrig’s uniform number “4″, making him the first player in Major League Baseball history to be accorded that honor. Gehrig was given many gifts, commemorative plaques, and trophies. Some came from VIPs; others came from the stadium’s groundskeepers and janitorial staff. Footage of the ceremonies shows Gehrig being handed various gifts, and immediately setting them down on the ground, because he no longer had the arm strength to hold them. The Yankees gave him a silver trophy with their signatures engraved on it. Inscribed on the front was a special poem written by The New York Times writer John Kieran. The trophy cost only about $5, but it became one of Gehrig’s most prized possessions.It is currently on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
After the presentations and remarks by Babe Ruth, Gehrig addressed the crowd:
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 the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.
The crowd stood and applauded for almost two minutes. Gehrig was visibly shaken as he stepped away from the microphone, and wiped the tears away from his face with his handkerchief. Babe Ruth came over and hugged him as a band played “I Love You Truly” and the crowd chanted “We love you, Lou.” The New York Times account the following day called it “one of the most touching scenes ever witnessed on a ball field”, that made even hard-boiled reporters “swallow hard.”
In December 1939, Lou Gehrig was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in a special election by the Baseball Writers Association. At age 36, he was the second youngest player to be so honored (behind Sandy Koufax).
“Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present,” Lou Gehrig wrote following his retirement from baseball. Struggling against his ever-worsening physical condition, he added, “I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”
In October 1939, he accepted Mayor LaGuardia’s appointment to a ten-year term as a New York City Parole Commissioner and was sworn into office on January 2, 1940. The Parole Commission commended the ex-ballplayer for his “firm belief in parole, properly administered”, stating that Gehrig “indicated he accepted the parole post because it represented an opportunity for public service. He had rejected other job offers – including lucrative speaking and guest appearance opportunities – worth far more financially than the $5,700 a year commissionership.” Gehrig visited New York City’s correctional facilities, but insisted that the visits not be covered by news media. Gehrig, as always, quietly and efficiently performed his duties. He was often helped by his wife Eleanor, who would guide his hand when he had to sign official documents. About a month before his death, when Gehrig reached the point where his deteriorating physical condition made it impossible for him to continue in the job, he quietly resigned.
On June 2, 1941, at 10:10 p.m., sixteen years to the day after he replaced Wally Pipp at first base and two years after his retirement from baseball, Lou Gehrig died at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, New York.
Upon hearing the news, Babe Ruth and his wife Claire went to the Gehrig house to console Eleanor. Mayor LaGuardia ordered flags in New York to be flown at half-staff, and Major League ballparks around the nation did likewise.
Following the funeral at Christ Episcopal Church of Riverdale, Gehrig’s remains were cremated and interred on June 4 at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. Lou Gehrig and Ed Barrow are both interred in the same section of Kensico Cemetery, which is next door to Gate of Heaven Cemetery, where the graves of Babe Ruth and Billy Martin are located.
Eleanor Gehrig never remarried following her husband’s death, dedicating the rest of her life to supporting ALS research. She died on March 6, 1984, on her 80th birthday. They had no children.
The Yankees dedicated a monument to Gehrig in center field at Yankee Stadium on July 6, 1941, the shrine lauding him as, “A man, a gentleman and a great ballplayer whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time.” Gehrig’s monument joined the one placed there in 1932 to Miller Huggins, which would eventually be followed by Babe Ruth’s in 1949.
Gehrig’s birthplace in Manhattan, at 1994 Second Avenue (near E. 103rd Street), is memorialized with a plaque marking the site, as is another early residence on E. 94th Street (near Second Avenue). The Gehrigs’ white house at 5204 Delafield Avenue in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where Lou Gehrig died, still stands today on the east side of the Henry Hudson Parkway and is likewise marked by a plaque.
Source and thank you to Dimitri Gatanas.