The Iron Horse
By Larry Schwartz
"The thing that is so enormous about Gehrig's streak, besides the length and everything else, was that was what stopped it -- facing his own death. That's not like striking out four times."
-- Dick Schaap, on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, May 28, 10:30 p.m. ET).
Lou Gehrig, who played in 2,130 consecutive games and knocked in more than 150 runs seven times, was voted No. 34 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
June 3, 1932 -- Before setting his record longevity streak, Gehrig made history in one afternoon when he became the first player in the 20th century to hit four homers in a game.
The Iron Horse connected on his first four plate appearances in Philadelphia, his drives in the first and fifth innings going into the stands in left-center and his blasts in the fourth and seventh flying over the right-field wall. The first homer was a two-run shot and the other three were solo.
|Lou Gehrig averaged 147 RBI over the course of his 13 full seasons in the major leagues.|
George Earnshaw was the victim of the first three gophers, and Roy Mahaffey served up the fourth as Gehrig tied Ty Cobb's American League record with his 16 total bases.
Gehrig had two more chances to become the first player to hit five homers in a game (Bobby Lowe and Ed Delahanty had four in the 19th century). But in the eighth inning of the Yankees' 20-13 victory over the Athletics, he grounded out, and in the ninth, his deep drive to center was hauled down by Al Simmons.
As usual, though, Gehrig's performance was overshadowed by another event. While Gehrig's feat was the lead story in the sports pages of The New York Times, another sport story was front-page news: the resignation of Giants manager John McGraw.
Odds and ends
When Gehrig hit a prodigious grand slam in Chicago's Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field) for the clinching blow in a high school championship game, the Chicago Tribune wrote, "Gehrig's blow would have made any big leaguer proud, yet it was walloped by a boy who hasn't yet started to shave." The New York newspapers labeled Gehrig "the Babe Ruth of the schoolyards."
Gehrig grew up near the poverty line. Part of the problem was that his father Heinrich was unable to hold down a steady job, partially due to his affection for drinking.
Thinking he could earn money for his family in 1921 playing minor league baseball, Gehrig played 12 games for Class A Hartford under the name Lou Lewis. Columbia coach Andy Coakley found out and told Gehrig he was making a mistake. For his malfeasance, Gehrig was banned from college sports for a year.
Before he signed with the Yankees in 1923, Gehrig was a feared college slugger known as "Columbia Lou." He also was an outstanding pitcher. On the day that Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, with Ruth hitting the first home run, Gehrig struck out 17 Williams College batters in a 5-1 loss.
When Ruth belted 60 homers in 1927, Gehrig hit 47. As late as Aug. 19 the Iron Horse led the Bambino, 39-38, but he couldn't compete with Ruth's finishing kick.
In 1931, Gehrig and Ruth tied for the A.L. lead with 46 homers. Gehrig lost a homer when a baserunner thought the ball was caught and headed for the dugout, believing there were three outs. When Gehrig passed the runner, his homer was negated.
In the game that Ruth hit his "called shot" in the 1932 World Series against the Cubs, Gehrig hit two homers, including one following Babe's homer.
Despite suffering lower-back pain, Gehrig led off one game in 1934 in Detroit (he was listed as the shortstop), singled and then was removed for a pinch-runner.
Gehrig led the American League in hitting just once -- with a .363 average in 1934 when he became the first Yankee to win the Triple Crown. But he batted higher than that three times (.373, .374 and .379) between 1927-30.
When Gehrig's streak reached 1,999, his wife Eleanor suggested he sit out the next game. She thought it would ease the pressure on him as well as give him additional publicity, as it would be a number people wouldn't forget. The Iron Horse played on.
In his 13 full seasons, Gehrig averaged 147 runs batted in. From 1950 through 1995, not one American Leaguer reached 147 RBI.
Besides his record 23 grand slams, Gehrig also had 73 three-run homers and 166 two-run shots among his 493 homers.
In 34 World Series games, Gehrig batted .361 with 10 homers, eight doubles and 35 RBI in 119 at-bats.
The Yankees lost their first Series with Gehrig (1926), but won their next six (1927-28, 1932, 1936-38).
Late in his career, Gehrig's hands were x-rayed and doctors spotted 17 fractures that had "healed" while he continued to play.
Gehrig knew it was time to take himself out of the lineup in 1939 when several teammates complimented him for making a routine play.
When Gehrig's consecutive-game streak ended on May 2, 1939, pitcher Lefty Gomez told him, "It took them 15 years to get you out of the game. Sometimes I'm out of there in 15 minutes."
Gehrig's lifetime slugging percentage of .632 is third all-time behind Ruth's .690 and Ted Williams' .634.
Gehrig was the first athlete in any sport to have his number retired. No Yankee besides Gehrig ever has worn No. 4.
The general estimate is that Gehrig earned $361,500 in salary from the Yankees, with a high of $39,000 in 1938.
After Gehrig retired in 1939, he was appointed to the New York City Parole Commission and worked with youth groups until a month before his death.
"I would not have traded two minutes of joy and the grief with that man for two decades of anything with another," said Eleanor Gehrig.