The Amazing Life and Legacy of Lou Gehrig

Little-known facts about the Yankee legend

On June 2, 1939, Lou Gehrig, one of baseball’s all-time greatest players, passed away. He was 37 years old.

He died 16 years, to the day, after starting at first base against the Cleveland Indians. It was the beginning of what was the longest consecutive game streak in baseball—2,130 games—until Cal Ripken broke it in 1995.

Lou Gehrig left us, dying of a disease that now bears his name, more than 75 years ago, at the end of a career that started in 1923. Almost all sports fans know of his name, his stature and his untimely passing, but little more than that.

So here are some random, interesting, and lesser-known facts about the amazing life, baseball career, and death of Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse.*

“The Iron Horse” wasn’t his first or only nickname. Gehrig would earn the nickname “the Iron Horse” by proving that he was tough, enduring, and able to play game after game, no matter the weather, the team, or even how he felt that day. He wasn’t the Iron Horse right out of the gate, however, or even after his first few years.

In fact, according to the newspapers that covered his early days, Gehrig had a variety of nicknames—the more popular one in his early Yankee days was Buster Gehrig. Others included:
• Columbia Lou
• Biscuit Pants
• The Dutchman, or Big Dutchman

In fact, “Buster Gehrig,” as in “fence buster,” was probably the name that was most common for him in his early Yankee days.

He wasn’t a starter until his third year. It’s hard to believe, but Gehrig was on the Yankees’ roster in 1923 and ’24, but he didn’t have a full season until 1925. He played 13 games the first year, 10 the second. Finally, in the 1925 season he played in 126 games.

He wore number 4 because he hit cleanup. Prior to 1929, the Yankees and other teams didn’t wear numbers on the back of their uniforms. Players went simply by their names and faces. But there weren’t public address announcers back then, so the numbers helped the ordinary fan follow a player on the field or at bat. The Yanks handed out numbers based on the batting order, more or less. Ruth batted third in the lineup, ahead of Gehrig, so Ruth wore number 3. Gehrig followed, so he wore a “4” on the back of his uniform.

Gehrig won the MVP award twice, but he should have won more. In 1927, he won the award in part because Babe Ruth was not eligible: Ruth had won the year before, and they didn’t allow back-to-back MVPs at that time.

The consecutive streak Gehrig broke belonged to a one-time Yankee. We know that Ripken broke Gehrig’s record, but whose record did Gehrig break? It belonged to Everett “Deacon” Scott, who played in 1,307 straight games and four seasons for the Yanks. He’d retired with the record in 1926. Gehrig broke Scott’s record on August 17, 1933, in a game against the St. Louis Browns.

Lou Gehrig was the first player ever to have his number “retired.” That’s how we would say it today, but months after Gehrig played his last game—and it was obvious that he wasn’t coming back—the Yankees announced that no player would ever wear the number 4 again. It was the first time any professional team had retired a player’s number. They also said that no player would ever use Gehrig’s locker.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame the same year he stopped playing. Gehrig ended his consecutive game streak and his baseball career on May 2, 1939. In December of that year, he was nominated for and elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was the first time the election committee had made an exception and elected a player the year he retired.

Gehrig wanted to play “Tarzan” in the movies. Who knew! And it wasn’t just a passing interest. In 1936, the role of Tarzan had just been vacated by Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympic swimming champion. Gehrig’s agent came up with the idea for Gehrig and, breaking out of his shell, Lou was eager to pursue the role. There’s even a publicity picture from around that time showing him in a leopard Tarzan outfit. He didn’t get the part, mostly because the Hollywood people thought his legs were too muscular!

Lou goes to Hollywood. About two years later, Lou Gehrig appeared in a 1938 Hollywood movie called Rawhide. You can see a clip of it on YouTube. He wore a ten-gallon hat and six-shooter, playing himself. Yes, he appeared as the Lou Gehrig who, according to the script, decided to leave baseball and move out West.

Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech was not recorded in full in print or film. There are a few newsreel clips from the ceremony at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, which was called Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. The ceremony was held between games of a double-header against the Washington Senators. However, no news organization filmed Gehrig’s short, touching words in full, and no news reporter captured it in its entirety either. However, in his biography on Gehrig, Jonathan Eig pieced together Lou Gehrig’s farewell words, using clips and reports from various news sources.*

Lou Gehrig played the entire 1938 season battling the onset of ALS. He went through long slumps on many occasions and opened the season with games where he’d go 0-for-3, 0-for-4—even 0-for-5 in an early game. At the end of the month, he had the worst batting average in the American League. Yet…he kept playing, kept trying, kept giving it his all. His final season, he hit .295 with 29 home runs and 114 runs batted in.

Lou Gehrig took a job for the parole board of New York City in 1939 while waiting for a cure. He took his job seriously and continued to drive himself to work, even as his body was failing him.

Lou Gehrig’s incredible strength, stamina, determination and dedication pulled him through more than 2,000 consecutive games, and in 1938 pulled him through his longest, toughest season. But his mind and body were no match for the disease that eventually took his life…and took his name.

*Many of the facts here appear in the comprehensive biography entitled Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig; Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Image credit: Harris & Ewing