83 years ago today, Lou Gehrig replaced Yankees’ first basemen Wally Pipp in the starting lineup. We all know what happened next – he didn’t miss a game until 1939. And to this day, the game of baseball still feeds off the talent, dedication, and humility that he possessed.
Many books have been written on his life and legacy, yet in the public eye he still seems to represent one number: 2,130. He’s respected, yes, but he commands respect for more reasons than the streak. Because beyond the consecutive games was a man who completely dominated the field but showed even more dedication and courage after he left the stadium and lived his day to day life.
His parents were German immigrants who struggled to make a living but taught him what perseverance was. His father struggled with his health, so his mother worked endlessly to provide for the family. He attended Columbia University in New York on a football scholarship and studied engineering. Two years later, in 1923, he signed a $1,500 contract with the Yankees and was called up to the team that September. He hit .423 in 26 at-bats, but it would be 21 months before he got the now famous start.
He hit clean up behind Babe Ruth, so you could say he was both figuratively and literally in the Babe’s shadow. But he didn’t mind. When asked about it, he replied, “It’s a pretty big shadow. It gives me lots of room to spread myself.”
He was right. He hit .340 for his entire career, had an on base percentage of .447, hit 493 homers, and averaged 132 RBIs once he became the starter in 1925. He topped 150 RBIs seven times, and finished over 170 RBIs three times. In 1931 he hit .341 with 31doubles, 15 triples, 46 homers and 184 RBIs. Somehow he finished second in the MVP race that year. But that’s okay; he won two of his own and finished in the top five in MVP voting 8 times, including the two years he won.
He won the Triple Crown in 1934, and he averaged 88 walks and only 46 strikeouts a season. He holds the record for most grand slams hit with 23, and he even stole home plate 15 times.
I could list stat after stat but we would be here a while. The point is the man was more than a player you could pencil in the lineup every day. He was one of the greatest and most complete hitters of all time.
As for the streak, well, to put that in perspective the other 15 teams in baseball at that time used a combined 89 primary first basemen in the time that the Yankees used 1.
Off the field, his “stats” are even more impressive. Far different from the demonstrative personality of the Babe, Gehrig was quiet and humble. He was kind, and remained ever loyal to his wife, Eleanor, and his two parents.
As ALS began to take over his body, he still never let go of the hope and optimism that made him as unique as he was admirable.
“I intend to hold on as long as possible…” he said, “…and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do”
He was a man worthy of respect not just in the record books, but in our memories as well. 83 years ago today he started the streak. And, ironically, 67 years ago today he passed away.
In this day and age it’s easy to get distracted by some of the negative aspects things happening in sports, but there are a lot more positives. Remembering one of the greatest, Lou Gehrig, is one of them.
“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. 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 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 may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
–Lou Gehrig, July 4, 1939