Want to read something about baseball that has nothing to do with steroids, salary arbitrations or insults heaped upon an opposing player? Read Jonathan...
“Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig”
by Jonathan Eig
Simon & Schuster, 420 pp., $26
Want to read something about baseball that has nothing to do with steroids, salary arbitrations or insults heaped upon an opposing player? Read Jonathan Eig’s “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.”
Although Eig makes little mention of modern baseball, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons between what’s happening in baseball today and how Gehrig conducted himself in the 1920s and ’30s.
Eig has meticulously researched Gehrig’s life, drawing on old newspaper clippings, newsreel footage, some of Gehrig’s personal correspondence and interviews with old players. The attention to detail reveals how Gehrig came to be the “Iron Horse,” playing in 2,130 straight games as the New York Yankees’ first baseman from June 1, 1925, to April 30, 1939, and setting what Eig at one point calls “the dullest record in the book.” It stood until 1995 when Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st game.
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It might have been the dullest record if all Gehrig had done was show up. But Gehrig did a lot more than that.
He had 493 career home runs, a lifetime batting average of .340, batted in 1,995 runs in his career and had 35 RBIs in World Series games. Eig notes that Gehrig was the first player voted into the Hall of Fame the same year he stopped playing. His was the first jersey retired by the Yankees, and he was the first athlete to appear on the Wheaties cereal box.
But the real drama of the Gehrig story is in the sudden end to his career because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which most people in the United States since 1939 have come to know as Lou Gehrig’s disease. By the time Eig explains the debilitations caused by ALS, tells the story of Gehrig’s farewell speech and describes his rapid decline between it and his death, the reader understands why Gehrig’s story grabbed the attention of Americans then and has continued to hold a spot in American sports lore.
Eig makes baseball history come alive, populating his book with players of Gehrig’s era: Babe Ruth, Wally Pipp (who lost his starting position to Gehrig), Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio and on and on. He writes concise, riveting accounts of important games in Gehrig’s career, from Commerce High School to the last game he stumbled through.
As a senior writer for The Wall Street Journal, Eig is handy with economic data to set the American scene when Gehrig played, from the Roaring ’20s to the Depression, noting that Gehrig was the perfect hero for the Depression — steady, blue collar, not flashy like Ruth in the 1920s.
Gehrig’s is not just a story of the mighty brought low; it’s about a decent man who faced his fate with humility and dignity. Eig’s book tells what went into making the man decent.
Gehrig was born to German immigrants in 1903 and grew up in New York City. His mother cleaned houses and took in laundry, and Gehrig, starting at age 5, was a reliable helper. He remained devoted to her throughout his life.
He developed into a quiet and dependable youth and a shy rookie who shared his mother’s cookies and pickled eels in an effort to make friends with his Yankee teammates.
He seems to have had the attitude of being “lucky to play baseball” throughout his career — not just on the famous farewell day in 1939. More often than not, he credited others for his time in baseball, drawing little attention to his achievements that got him there and kept him there. He asked for little, and that included salary, often signing the contract sent to him without making a counter offer.
That changed some after he married Eleanor Grace Twitchell in 1933. She urged him to bargain with the owners, and by 1938 he was making $39,000, far more than anyone else that season.
Eleanor also went to work on Gehrig’s public image, wrangling endorsements for him, trying to line up movie deals and even helping compose a song (“I Can’t Get to First Base with You”) designed to spread his fame. But Gehrig was quiet, lacking in confidence in these settings and not an easy man to build into a flashy image off the field.
His emphasis was always on the physical, and he was well suited for that. At 6 foot 1, he played for most of his career at 210 pounds, says Eig. He was once considered for the movie role of Tarzan but lost out, in part because his legs were too big.
He achieved by doing, not by talking about it. And yet the speech he gave — reluctantly and haltingly — on July 4, 1939, erased any doubts fans may have had about this man so uncomfortable in the limelight. Simple and straightforward, the farewell speech was a tribute to those he had played for and with, to his family and even to the groundskeepers, office staff and concessionaires. He said little about his own “bad break” and never mentioned his own achievements.
For the reliable “Iron Horse” to be brought down so fast, and yet be so humble and thankful for what he had, made a resonant and very sad story. And Eig has captured it perfectly.
John B. Saul is deputy metropolitan editor
at The Seattle Times.