Nicknamed “The Iron Horse” due to his durability, Lou Gehrig played professional baseball for the New York Yankees from 1923 through 1939. His record of playing 1,230 consecutive games, which equated to about 14 seasons, lasted for several decades only to be broken by the Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken, Jr. When he was 35, Gehrig received the diagnosis that he had an incurable disease. He died in 1941 at the age of 37. His passing left a mark not only on the baseball community but also on the world.
Who Was Lou Gehrig?
While he was a standout football player, Lou Gehrig set his sights on MLB when he signed his first contract with the New York Yankees in April 1923. He went on to play 14 years with the Yankees and helped the team earn six World Series titles. He retired from baseball in 1939 after a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This progressively neurodegenerative disease affects the nerve cells located in the spinal cord and brain. He died from the disease in 1941.
His Early Years
On June 19, 1903, in the Yorkville section of New York City, Henrich Ludwig Gehrig II entered the world at almost 14 pounds. His parents, Heinrich and Christina Gehrig, were German immigrants who moved to the United States a few years before he was born. They Americanized his name to Henry Louis, eventually referring to him as Lou.
Lou was the only child out of four to survive infancy, and his childhood was difficult. His father struggled with maintaining his sobriety and keeping a job, while his mother sought to give their son a better life by cleaning homes and cooking meals for wealthy New Yorkers.
From an early age, Lou proved to be a quality athlete, excelling in both football and baseball. He was called the “Babe Ruth of the schoolyards” after hitting a grand slam for his high school at a national championship game in Chicago. After high school, he enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied engineering and joined the football team as a fullback. He also participated on the university’s baseball team as a pitcher and earned the nickname Columbia Lou. In one memorable game, he struck out 17 batters.
However, it was Gehrig’s bat that appealed to the Yankees. In April 1923, the same year that Yankee Stadium opened, the team signed Gehrig to his first professional contract that included a $1.500 signing bonus. This money allowed him to play professional baseball full time and move his family out to the suburbs.
His Consecutive Game Streak
After Gehrig signed his contract with the Yankees, he made his major-league debut on June 15, 1923. He spent much of the 1923 and 1924 seasons in the minor leagues, but it wasn’t until 1925 that he began to make an impact with the Yankees. On June 1, 1925, he pinch-hit for shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger and singled. This move started his streak of playing in 2,120 consecutive games.
When first baseman Wally Pipp had a headache the following day, Gehrig stepped in to play first base. This streak stood until 1995 when Ripken, Jr. broke the record. Gehrig wore the number 4 uniform because he batted fourth in the lineup behind Babe Ruth, the team’s third batter. Gehrig was often overshadowed by Ruth during his career on and off the field since Ruth was more flamboyant while Gehrig was more reserved. But combined, the two provided a powerful force in the Yankees’ lineup.
During Gehrig’s 14 seasons, he helped the team win seven pennants and six World Series titles. He also hit 493 home runs, had 1,990 RBIs, and had a .340 batting average during his tenure. These stats also include 13 years of earning at least 100 runs per season, and in 1934 he earned MLB’s Triple Crown by leading the league in RBIs (165), home runs (49), and average (.363).
It took until May 2, 1939, for Gehrig to finally miss a game. During the previous eight games, Gehrig was hitting a mediocre 4-for-28, which equated to a .143 batting average. He mentioned he felt tired and sluggish, so he removed himself from the lineup. He informed manager Joe McCarthy that it would be best for the club if someone else played first base. Gehrig ended up never playing another MLB game again but continued as the team’s captain for the remainder of the season.
As Gehrig’s debilitation became worse, his wife Eleanor grew more concerned and decided to reach out to Mayo Clinic. She was advised that her husband needed to come to the clinic as soon as possible. On June 13, 1939, Lou visited Mayo Clinic and left after a six-day stay on his 36th birthday. He had received a grim prognosis: ALS.
This neuromuscular disease, which would later be known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” causes increasing paralysis and difficulty speaking and swallowing. It also comes with a life expectancy of fewer than three years. Gehrig was told the disease’s origin was unknown but was not contagious. The mind remains entirely conscious, but the body deteriorates. The letter inserted in the envelope stated that Gehrig would be unable to continue as an active participant as a baseball player. The Yankees announced Gehrig’s retirement on June 21.
Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day
Sportswriters began promoting the idea of honoring Gehrig, with some suggesting the Yankees hold it during the All-Star Game. Yankees president Ed Barrow shot it down because he believed Gehrig shouldn’t share the spotlight with anyone else. He chose Independence Day at Yankee Stadium, with a ceremony between the doubleheader games against the Washington Senators.
Surrounded by his teammates from his time with the Yankees, Gehrig fought back tears as he spoke to the crowd. Famous for avoiding public attention, he involuntarily gave an emotional farewell address that stressed the appreciation he felt for everything the team had done for him. This moment was later captured in the film “The Pride of the Yankees,” starring Gary Cooper.
One of the famous lines Gehrig told the crowd of 61,808 fans and former teammates was: “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 the earth.” The crowd stood and applauded for almost two minutes, and Gehrig stepped away from the microphone and wiped tears from his face.
Gehrig’s Final Years
After Gehrig retired from baseball, MLB revised its rules and immediately inducted him into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Yankees also honored the former player by retiring his number, making him the first MLB player to have that distinction. His health eventually deteriorated, and he passed away in his sleep at his New York City home on June 2, 1941. Later that year, the Yankees erected a monument in Monument Park at the stadium.
His legacy continued, even after his death. MLB created the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, which is given annually to the player who best exhibits stellar character and integrity. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America in 1969 voted Gehrig as the greatest first baseman of all time, and in 1999 he received the most votes for the MLB All-Century Team as voted on by the fans.
Lou Gehrig Day
Beginning in 2021, MLB honors Gehrig with Lou Gehrig Day on June 2. The league selected this date because it was the day the Hall of Famer became the Yankees starting first baseman and the date he passed away from ALS at the age of 37. MLB states that having this day allows those who haven’t been personally affected by the disease an opportunity to understand what ALS is and how they can help others who are diagnosed with this incurable disease.
Every team that has a home game on that date displays “4-ALS” logos throughout the ballpark. This number coincides with Gehrig’s uniform number. All players also wear special “Lou Gehrig Day” patches on their uniforms and red “4-ALS” wristbands. Teams that don’t have games on June 2 observe Lou Gehrig Day the following day.
Additionally, teams are asked to hold special ceremonies and activities centered around the community. For instance, for the 2021 day, the Chicago Cubs auctioned off limited-edition prints depicting players as superheroes to benefit Project Main Street, a nonprofit that improves the quality of life for ALS patients. MLB also hosts a charity auction to benefit a specific organization that assists those with ALS. The league sells Lou Gehrig Day T-shirts with royalties going to ALS organizations.
Lou Gehrig made a mark on the field for the New York Yankees as he set several records and helped the club win several World Series titles. However, his ALS diagnosis also makes him noteworthy. Even though he died more than 60 years ago, his legacy continues to impact MLB.