Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Pride of the Yankees

Baseball legend Lou Gehrig was born on this day in 1903 in New York City.

A high school sports star, Henry Louis Gehrig was declared ineligible for athletics at Columbia University because he had signed a professional contract with the Hartford minor league team. He played for 2 years with Hartford before joining the Yankees as their starting first baseman in 1925.

In 17 seasons with the Yankees, he knocked in over 100 runs 13 times, leading the league 5 times, and he hit 493 home runs, second at that time only to his friend and fellow Yankee slugger, Babe Ruth. The 1927 Yankees were considered the greatest baseball squad of all time, and the Yankees themselves considered Gehrig, who hit .373 with 47 home runs and 175 runs batted in (a record at the time), to be their most valuable player. In 1931, he set another record for RBIs (184), and in 1934, Gehrig won the Triple Crown, leading the American League in batting (.363), home runs (49) and RBIs (165) -- all the while playing in every single game of every single season -- beating the previous record of 1,307 consecutive games, set by Everett Scott in 1925, during the 1933 season.

In contrast to his pal the Babe, the gentlemanly Gehrig didn't smoke, drink, gamble or carouse, and was singularly devoted to his mother (legend has it she had to scold him into leaving her bedside to play in the 1927 World Series after she had undergone surgery). In 1933, when he married debutante Eleanor Twitchell, he became a singularly devoted (and teachable) husband, bending to Eleanor's tastes in art and literature and taking her advice on opening up to the fans.

With life going as well as anyone could imagine, during the 1938 season Gehrig felt he had not played up to his own standards (although he still hit 29 homers, including his record 23rd career grand slam, and batted in 114 runs), so in the spring of 1939 he put himself through an exhausting physical regimen to get into better shape; but as the season began, it became clear that something was wrong. On May 2, he told manager Joe McCarthy to put in his backup, Babe Dahlgren, because, as Gehrig said, "I'm not doing the club any good out there." With that, Gehrig ended a remarkable streak, playing a record 2,130 consecutive games (a mark that would only be broken 56 years later by Cal Ripken).

Soon afterward, Gehrig discovered that he was suffering from the early stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative muscle disease that would come to be known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." On July 4, 1939, the Yankees held a farewell testimonial day for Gehrig, during which he addressed the crowd in a moment considered by many to be among the most emotionally intense in the history of sports, telling the world: "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

(Proving that the moment has entered our pop culture consciousness indelibly enough to be trodden upon, Norm MacDonald provided a theoretical follow-up to Gehrig's moment at the microphone on an episode of Saturday Night Live: "I was being sarcastic! I am the unluckiest man in the world! I have a disease so rare they named it after me!").

After Gehrig's retirement, New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed Gehrig to be a New York City parole commissioner, a job at which he worked conscientiously while lending his time to youth groups. He died on June 2, 1941 in Riverdale, New York at the age of 38, two years after entering baseball's Hall of Fame in a special election. Lou and Eleanor were played by Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright in the classic film The Pride of the Yankees (1942), which both lovingly drew upon and fortified the Gehrig legend.

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