✪ Henry Louis Gehrig (born Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig) was an American professional baseball first baseman who played 17 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB) for the New York Yankees from 1923–1939. Gehrig was renowned for his prowess as a hitter and for his durability, which earned him his nickname “The Iron Horse.” He is widely regarded as one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He was an All-Star seven consecutive times, a Triple Crown winner once, an American League (AL) Most Valuable Player twice and a member of six World Series champion teams.
He had a career .340 batting average, .632 slugging average and a .447 on base average. He hit 493 home runs and had 1,995 runs batted in (RBI). He still has the highest ratio of runs scored plus runs batted in per 100 plate appearances (35.08) and per 100 games (156.7) among all the Hall of Fame players. In 1939, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and was the first MLB player to have his uniform (Number 4) retired by a team.
A native of New York City and a student at Columbia University, Gehrig signed with the Yankees on April 29, 1923. He set several major-league records during his career, including the most career grand slams (23; since broken by Alex Rodriguez and most consecutive games played (2,130), a record that stood for 56 years and was long considered unbreakable until it was surpassed by Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995. Gehrig’s consecutive game streak ended on May 2, 1939, when he voluntarily took himself out of the lineup, stunning both players and fans, after his performance on the field became hampered by an undiagnosed ailment subsequently confirmed to be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is an incurable neuromuscular illness, now commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
Gehrig was born June 19, 1903, at 1994 Second Avenue (according to his birth certificate) in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan. He weighed almost 14 pounds at birth. He was the second of four children of German immigrants, Christina Foch (1881–1954) and Heinrich Gehrig (1867–1946).
His father was a sheet-metal worker by trade who was frequently unemployed due to alcoholism and epilepsy. Gehrig’s mother was a maid and the main breadwinner and disciplinarian in the family. Gehrig was the only one of the four siblings to survive past childhood. His two sisters died at an early age from whooping cough and measles; a younger brother also died in infancy.
From an early age, Gehrig helped his mother with her work, doing tasks such as folding laundry and picking up supplies from the local stores. Gehrig spoke German in his home during his childhood and did not learn English until the age of five. In 1910 he lived with his parents at 2266 Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights. In 1920 the family resided on 8th Avenue in Manhattan. His name was often anglicized to Henry Louis Gehrig but he was known as “Lou” so he would not be confused with his identically named father, who was known as Henry.
Gehrig first garnered national attention for his baseball ability while playing in a game at Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field) in Chicago on June 26, 1920. His New York School of Commerce team was playing a local team from Lane Tech High School in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 spectators. With his team leading 8–6 in the top of the ninth inning, Gehrig hit a grand slam completely out of the major league park, which was an unheard of feat for a 17-year-old.
Gehrig attended PS 132 in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, then went to Commerce High School, graduating in 1921. He then studied engineering at Columbia University for two years. However, he found the schoolwork difficult and left to pursue a career in professional baseball. He had originally been recruited to play football at Columbia by earning a scholarship there, but later joined the baseball squad.
After he played a dozen games for the Hartford Senators in the Eastern League under an assumed moniker, he was discovered and banned from collegiate sports his freshman year. In 1922 Gehrig returned to collegiate sports as a fullback for the Columbia Lions football program. Later, in 1923, he played first base and pitched for the Columbia baseball team. At Columbia, he was a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
On April 18, 1923, the same day Yankee Stadium opened for the first time and Babe Ruth inaugurated the new stadium with a home run against the Boston Red Sox, Columbia pitcher Gehrig struck out 17 Williams Ephs batters to set a team record, though Columbia still lost the game.
Scouts eventually noticed Gehrig and saw him as “the next Babe Ruth.” He signed a contract with the Yankees on April 30. Gehrig returned to the minor-league Hartford Senators to play parts of two seasons in 1923 and 1924, batting .344 and hitting 61 home runs in a total of 193 games. Except for his games with Hartford, a two-hour car ride away, Gehrig would play his entire baseball life—sandlot, high school, college and professional—with teams based entirely in New York City.
Gehrig joined the New York Yankees midway through the 1923 season and made his major-league debut as a pinch hitter at age 19 on June 15, 1923. Gehrig saw limited playing time, mostly as a pinch hitter, playing in only 23 games and was left off the Yankees’ 1923 World Series Roster.
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, who had a headache.
Unlike Babe Ruth, Gehrig was not a gifted position player so he played first base; often the position for a player who was a strong hitter but weaker fielder. The 23-year-old Yankee’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 1927, Gehrig put together one of the greatest seasons of any batter in baseball history; hitting .373, with 218 hits: 101 singles, 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs.
Although the AL recognized his season by naming him the league MVP, Gehrig’s accomplishments were overshadowed by Babe Ruth’s record-breaking 60 home runs and the overall dominance of the 1927 Yankees, a team often cited as having the greatest lineup of all time, the famed “Murderers’ Row.”
In 1929, the New York Yankees debuted wearing numbers on their uniforms. Gehrig wore Number 4 because he hit behind Babe Ruth, who batted third in the lineup.
In 1932, Gehrig became the first player in the 20th century to hit four home runs in a game, when he accomplished the feat on June 3 against the Philadelphia Athletics. He narrowly missed getting a fifth home run 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 30 years of managing the New York Giants. It was McGraw and not Gehrig who captured the majority of the headlines in the newspaper sports sections the following day.
Gehrig lived with his parents until 1933, when he was 30 years old. His mother ruined all of Gehrig’s romances until he finally met Eleanor Twitchell (1904–1984) in 1932. They began dating the next year and then married in September. She was the daughter of Chicago Parks Commissioner Frank Twitchell. She helped Gehrig leave his mother’s influence and hired Christy Walsh, Ruth’s sports agent to manage Gehrig’s publicity. Walsh helped Gehrig become the first athlete to appear on Wheaties boxes.
On April 30, 1934, Gehrig hit his 300th home run versus the Washington Senators, becoming the second player to reach that milestone only after Ruth. Gehrig also won the American League Triple Crown in 1934, leading the league with 49 home runs, 166 RBIs, and a .363 batting average.
During Gehrig’s continuous games streak, sportswriters in 1931 nicknamed him “the Iron Horse.” In a few instances, Gehrig managed to keep the streak going & intact through pinch-hitting appearances and fortuitous timing. In others, the streak continued despite injuries. For example:
- On April 23, 1933, a pitch by Washington Senators pitcher Earl Whitehill struck Gehrig in the head. Although almost knocked unconscious, Gehrig 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.
- In a June 1934 exhibition game, Gehrig was hit by a pitch just above the right eye and was knocked unconscious. According to news reports, he was out for five minutes. Batting helmets were not commonly used until the 1940s. He left the game, but reappeared in the lineup the next day.
- 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 Gehrig 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 significant fractures during his playing career, although he remained in the lineup despite those previously undisclosed injuries.
Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games endured for 56 years until Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it on September 6, 1995. Ripken’s streak finished with a total of 2,632 consecutive games.
Although he was not formally diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis until June 1939, Gehrig began experiencing symptoms of the disease as early as midway through the 1938 season. Although Gehrig’s 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 was tired mid-season. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t get going again.”
He hit his last home run on September 27, 1938. In the 1938 World Series, he had four hits in 14 at-bats (.286 batting average), all singles. When the Yankees began their 1939 spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, Gehrig clearly no longer possessed his once-formidable power. Even his base running was affected, and at one point he collapsed at Al Lang Stadium, then the Yankees’ spring training park. By the end of spring training, he had not hit a single home run. Throughout his career, Gehrig was considered an excellent base runner, but as the 1939 season got under way, his coordination and speed had deteriorated significantly.
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.
Things came to a head when Gehrig struggled to make a routine put-out at first base. The pitcher, Johnny Murphy, had to wait for him to drag himself over to the bag so he could field the throw. Murphy said, “Nice play, Lou.” Gehrig’s later assessment was very dismissive. “That was the simplest play you could ever make in baseball, and I knew then: There was something wrong with me.”
On April 30, Gehrig went completely hitless against the Washington Senators. He 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.”
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. He stayed with the Yankees as team captain for the rest of the season, but never played in a major-league game again.
As Gehrig’s debilitation became steadily worse, his wife Eleanor called the 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 to the Clinic as soon as possible.
Gehrig flew alone to Rochester from Chicago, where the Yankees were playing at the time, and arrived at the Mayo Clinic on June 13, 1939. After six days of extensive testing at the clinic, doctors confirmed the diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) on June 19, 1939, which was Gehrig’s 36th birthday. The prognosis was grim: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking and a life expectancy less than three years, although no impairment of mental functions would occur. Eleanor Gehrig was told that the cause of ALS was unknown, but that it was painless, not contagious and cruel; the motor function of the central nervous system is destroyed, but the mind remains fully aware until the end. Gehrig often wrote letters to Eleanor, and one such note written shortly after the diagnosis said in part:
The bad news is lateral sclerosis, in our language “creeping” 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 …
Although Gehrig’s symptoms were consistent with ALS and he did not experience the wild mood swings and eruptions of uncontrolled violence that often define chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an article in the September 2010 issue of the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology suggested the possibility that some ALS-related illnesses diagnosed in Gehrig and other athletes may have been CTE, catalyzed by repeated concussions and other brain trauma.
Gehrig played prior to the use of safety batting helmets. To diagnose CTE would require autopsy results and none was conducted on Gehrig before his remains were cremated following his open-casket wake.
The doctors of the Mayo Clinic released their ALS diagnosis to the public on June 19, 1939. Two days later, the New York Yankees announced Gehrig’s retirement, with an immediate public push to honor him with a specially planned appreciation day. Some suggested that the appreciation day be held during the All-Star Game, but when Yankees president Ed Barrow heard the idea, he quickly shot down the suggestion. He did not want Gehrig to share the spotlight with any other all-star. Believing that the idea was valid and should be brought to fruition, Barrow wanted the appreciation day to occur soon. The Yankees proclaimed Tuesday, July 4, 1939 as “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” at Yankee Stadium.
In its sports coverage the following day, The New York Times wrote that the ceremony 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 and members of the Murderers’ Row lineup attended the ceremonies and praised Gehrig. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia called Gehrig the “perfect prototype of the best sportsmanship and citizenship.”
Yankees manager Joe McCarthy then spoke of Gehrig, a close friend. Struggling to control his emotions, McCarthy described Gehrig as “the finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman, and citizen that baseball has ever known.” He turned tearfully to Gehrig and 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. During a winter meeting of the Baseball Writers’ Association on December 7, 1939, Gehrig was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in a special election related to his illness. At age 36, he was the youngest player ever to have be so honored.
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On July 4, 1939, Gehrig delivered what has often been called “baseball’s Gettysburg Address” to a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium. Having always avoided public attention, Gehrig did not want to speak, but the crowd chanted for him and he delivered a few sentences he had memorized beforehand.
“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break.[pause] Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? 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 might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. — Thank you.“
Only four sentences of the speech exist in recorded form; complete versions of the speech are assembled from newspaper accounts.The crowd stood and applauded for almost two minutes. Gehrig was visibly shaken as he stepped back from the microphone, and wiped the tears away from his face with his handkerchief.
Following his retirement from baseball, Gehrig wrote, “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present.” 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.”
At 10:10 p.m. on June 2, 1941, 17 days before his 38th birthday, Gehrig died at his home at 5204 Delafield Avenue in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, New York. Upon hearing the news, Babe Ruth and his wife Claire went to the Gehrig house to console Eleanor. Mayor La Guardia ordered the flags in New York to be flown at half-staff, and major-league ballparks around the nation did likewise.
Thousands can to pay their respects and view Gehrig’s body at the Church of the Divine Paternity. Ruth cut in line ahead of everyone and wept in front of the casket. Following the funeral across the street from his house at Christ Episcopal Church of Riverdale, Gehrig’s remains were cremated on June 4 at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, 21 miles north of Yankee Stadium in suburban Westchester County. Gehrig’s ashes were then locked into a crypt in the stone monument marking his grave.
Eleanor never remarried and was quoted as saying, “I had the best of it. I would not have traded two minutes of my life with that man for 40 years with another.” She dedicated the remainder of her life to supporting ALS research. She died 43 years later after Gehrig on her 80th birthday, March 6, 1984, and is interred with him in Kensico Cemetery.✪