Lou Gehrig was overshadowed throughout his playing career with the New York Yankees, first by Babe Ruth
and later on by Joe DiMaggio. Lou Gehrig’s awesome accomplishments on the field are often not given their full due, in part because so much attention was focused on his consecutive games played streak, 2130, and the way he was forced to leave the game with the disease that still bears his name. But Lou Gehrig may have been the greatest run producer of all time. Had circumstances been a little different, he and not Ruth might be looked at today as the face of baseball.
At Columbia University in New York, Gehrig starred at the plate and on the mound. Like Ruth, Lou Gehrig was also a pitcher; he still holds the Columbia mark for strikeouts in one game with seventeen. His bat was too valuable to only have at his team’s disposal when he pitched, so he learned how to play first base. He came up to the Yankees for parts of the 1923 and ’24 campaigns, but didn’t get a real shot to stick until 1925. Ruth was in and out of the lineup all year with various illnesses and ailments and the New York club was in its one really down year of the decade of the Twenties. In an unbelievable coincidence, as we look back at it now, Gehrig began his streak on May 31st, 1925, when he pinch hit for a player named Pee Wee Wanninger, who himself had been the man to replace Everett Scott in the lineup, breaking Scott’s mark of 1,307 straight games, which was the standard that Gehrig would later shatter. The next day, the regular first baseman, Wally Pipp, who had put together four years in a row of 95 RBI or better, had a headache. Gehrig started at first and Pipp became the answer to a trivia question.
In 1926, Gehrig had a breakout season, but it would be modest compared to what was coming. At the age of 23, he hit .313 with 16 homers and 107 RBI. His 20 triples led the league and he walked well over 100 times. The Yankees made it to the World Series, where they lost the seventh game to the Cardinals. Gehrig hit .348 in the Series, but with the Yankees trailing 3-2 in the deciding game, Ruth was thrown out inexplicably trying to steal second, with Gehrig on deck. It was the first of several occurrences that would keep Gehrig in the shadows for most of his playing days.
It could be argued that Gehrig’s 1927 season was the greatest any player ever had. He hit .373 with 218 hits. His 52 doubles led the league as did his 175 RBI. The 47 homers he hit were two below his career high of 49, which he would achieve twice. He walked over a hundred times and scored 149 runs. Yet this was the year that Ruth hit his 60 home runs and the press focused on that remarkable accomplishment rather than Lou’s numbers. Gehrig hit .308 with a pair of doubles and triples in the four game series sweep of the Pirates, but Ruth had a pair of homers and 7 RBI in the classic to keep Gehrig from having top billing.
Gehrig led the American League in RBI five times and in runs four. He and Rocky Colavito are the only junior circuit players to clout four home runs in a nine inning game. On June 3rd, 1932 Gehrig hit four round trippers against the Athletics and narrowly missed another that hit high off the wall for a double. The banner in next day’s papers? New York Giants legendary manager John McGraw retires!
Gehrig had 100 or more RBI in every full season he played for thirteen years. He holds the record for most career grand slams with 23 home runs with the bases full. He won the Triple Crown in 1934 with a .363, 49 homer, 165 RBI year. In 1931, Gehrig tied Ruth for the league home run crown with 46. He lost a homer in Washington when he hit a ball into the stands that bounced back. His teammate, Lyn Lary, thinking the ball had been caught, rounded third then went back to the dugout. Gehrig was ruled out when he touched home for passing a man on the bases, eventually costing him not only the home run title outright, but a pair of RBI as well; he would end the year with 184. Even this astounding number wasn’t enough to be the all time record as Hack Wilson had knocked in 191 the year before.
Year after year the Iron Horse racked up the hits and drove in men at an alarming rate. From 1928 to the end of his career in 1939, his RBI totals were as such-142, 126, 174,184,151,139,165, 119,152, 159 and 114. As the disease that would kill him began to manifest itself in 1938, he managed “only” 114 RBI. Lou Gehrig drove in over 150 runs seven times, the only man to do so. It is his one record that will surely never be broken.
During the 1932 World Series, swept by the Yankees over the Cubs, Gehrig hit .529 with 3 homers and 8 RBI. Yet this was the Series when Ruth “called his shot” in Chicago and then hit the ball out of the park. Few recall that the next batter, Gehrig, came up next and promptly homered also. During their time on the Yankees, Gehrig would follow a Ruth homer with one of his own 19 times and both hit homers in the same game 72.
DiMaggio’s arrival in 1936, with Ruth now gone, ensured Gehrig’s playing second fiddle the rest of his career. The Yankees won the World Series from 1936-1939, with Gehrig’s home run off of Hall of Fame Giants ace Carl Hubbell keying the ’36 title. He would later say it was his greatest moment in the game. The Yankees continued to win, but Gehrig wore down and finally came out of the lineup for good on May 2nd, 1939, replaced by Babe Dahlgren. He retired with a .340 lifetime batting average and a total of 1991 RBI in 2,164 games, giving him .92 RBI a contest for his career. In comparison, Babe Ruth had .88 for his.
Gehrig did receive the MVP award for his 1927 and 1936 seasons, but, because of his modest nature, never was the darling of the press like Ruth and DiMaggio were. His ceremony on July 4th, 1939, in front of over 61,000 fans is remembered as the most poignant event ever to transpire on a baseball field. But to show the irony of Lou Gehrig’s life in baseball, to this day millions will swear that he ended his famous speech by saying “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He had said that at the beginning of the oration. In reality, he ended by saying, “I may have been given a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.” Two years later, Hollywood, feeling this wasn’t dramatic enough for moviegoers, rewrote the discourse for Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees.