The Iron Horse and Lesser Men

He knew he was dying.

And all of the eyes that followed him on that still, sweltering summer afternoon in the South Bronx were wide-eyed with anxiety and sadness. It was one of the only times that Yankee Stadium fell absolutely silent on a day the home team was in town.

However, few – if any – of the nervous people in the ballpark had any idea of the horrible secret Lou Gehrig held inside. All they knew was that the beloved first baseman, one of the greatest and most powerful players to ever take the field, had a big announcement to make and it wasn’t good news.

Only Gehrig knew the full extent of the awful contents of the physician’s report from the Mayo Clinic – the grim diagnosis of an untreatable disease he could barely pronounce, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and the hard reality of the outcome. He had two-to-five years to live, and most of those would be progressively hellish. He was 36 years old and had little reason to believe that he would ever turn 40.

Still, when it came time for him to publicly ponder the situation, he said something remarkable. He said he felt lucky. In fact, in that moment – the moment his heart was shattering into a million pieces – he said he felt like the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. And Gehrig made this extraordinary confession in front of 60,000 people – a dying man giving hope and inspiration to the healthy.

Indeed, he acknowledged them all – those who had cheered him so avidly, his comrades on the field, and mostly his beloved wife, Eleanor.

“I…have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men [alluding to his teammates]. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky… When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.”

He acknowledged everything except his own amazing achievements in the game and the overwhelming burden he now carried with his body on the brink of failing him.

On that day – July 4, 1939 – Gehrig said goodbye to baseball, his heartbroken fans, and the only professional life he had ever known. Yet, he withheld the very worst of it, because he knew that the loss of his career was enough bad news for the day. No reason to turn a retirement speech into a wake. And it had been quite a career.

For 14 seasons, he had powered the seemingly invincible New York Yankees, playing with a brilliant fury that produced Hall of Fame numbers and six World Series titles. But he did so mostly from the shadows.

Up until 1934, Babe Ruth had dominated New York’s headlines and the Yankee clubhouse. In fact, Ruth’s personality – his sheer bravado – steamrolled everything in its way.

Of course, all of that bluster suited the introspective Gehrig just fine. The Babe could have as much of the spotlight as he wanted – and he wanted plenty – because it allowed Ruth’s shy but equally brilliant teammate to play the game in relative peace.

Together, Ruth and Gehrig demolished American League pitching as no tandem ever had or likely ever will. Their dual percussion was relentless, reaching a crescendo in 1927 when they led New York to 110 wins and a World Series sweep. Between them, the pair combined to hit .365 with 107 home runs and 339 RBI’s.

However, aside from the complementary nature of their extraordinary talent at the plate, they were polar opposites in virtually every other respect. There was, of course, the aforementioned disparity in their personalities. But there was much more.

Physically, they were nearly cartoonish in their differences. Ruth was plumpish – almost dirigible-shaped – with only the slightest hint of athleticism, as if he’d had plenty of it once but that it had dulled and rounded into a distant memory. Gehrig, on the other hand, was chiseled – as if from a block of granite – handsomely muscled with a physique that guided his every move with power and grace.

Gehrig even had the rugged good looks of a leading man, while Ruth displayed the weathered features of a celluloid heavy.

However, it was Ruth who lived like a movie star, big and loud and publicly loved. Meanwhile, Gehrig sought quieter spaces, reveling in the arts and education.

In fact, had it not been for the Yankees’ deep pockets, the quick swoon of a veteran talent scout, and Gehrig’s own undeniable love of the game, he would have finished his coursework at Columbia and likely disappeared into academia with his Ivy League diploma as his beacon.

But baseball – and fate – won out. Yankee scout Paul Krichell saw Gehrig play two games on campus, hit three home runs, and pitch a complete game victory.

A weighty contract offer followed, and the Renaissance man exchanged his ivory tower for a rogue’s gallery, accepting the inevitable incongruity of a college man placed in the midst of largely unsophisticated athletic savants.

And there was no bigger rogue than his antithesis, Ruth. While his portly teammate embraced vice with the vigor and tenacity of, well, a vise, the public couldn’t help itself and was drawn to Ruth’s boisterous charisma with Newtonian pull. It was the Roaring 20’s, and the Babe bellowed louder than anyone. His appetite for Prohibition-defying liquor, non-matrimonial dalliance, and culinary excess appeared insatiable.

To his credit, Ruth also walked the walk on the diamond. His game was as massive as his personal life. He hit home runs with such frequency and impressive longitude that the game’s record book became more like a diary than an open tome.

While Gehrig’s drives lacked some of the rapidity and booming arc of Ruth’s, he outdid his more celebrated teammate in two noteworthy areas of the game.

In the ten seasons they played together, Gehrig bested Ruth in runs batted in six times. In fact, Gehrig led all of baseball in the category on four of those occasions. His staggering total of 184 in 1931 remains an American League record. That reliability and dependable success organically led to his enduring legacy in the sport.

For 13 years, he played every single game of each season, eventually setting a Major League record by appearing in 2,130 consecutive contests.

His relentless consistency earned him the nickname “The Iron Horse,” an endearing tribute to his unmovable presence on the field. More than that, he became the rock at the center of the game’s most famous franchise.

By the time an aging Ruth left New York for a final gasping season with the Boston Braves in 1935, Gehrig had come to embody the highest aspirations of athletic character. It wasn’t enough to merely excel on the field.  Success only had value if it was accompanied by selfless effort and humility. And in his own quiet way, he eventually garnered public adoration and the affection of his teammates through admiration of character rather than infatuation with caricature.

And there was no greater test of that character than in the months leading up to the day he said goodbye in the summer of 1939.

The prior season had been atypically difficult for him. His renowned power hadn’t merely ebbed.  At times, it disappeared altogether. He also had disconcerting episodes of clumsiness and confusion. The slow fade of athletic aging – he turned 35 that June – was one thing; sporadic physical failure quite another. For the first time since his rookie year, he failed to hit .300 and finished with one of the lowest RBI totals of his brilliant career. Still, by most ordinary standards, he had a largely successful year – just not one on par with Gehrig’s remarkable vintage.

Something was wrong, but no one quite knew what.

At the start of the 1939 season, it all came to a stunning halt. His physical deterioration accelerated to the point where he could barely perform the most menial baseball duties. The one thing indispensable to a player – his hand/eye coordination – was almost entirely bereft. Although Gehrig’s considerable athletic gifts had evaporated seemingly without reason, he accepted the loss with characteristic grace.

After a string of 2,130 interlocking Major League games on the field, he removed himself from the lineup voluntarily largely because he felt responsible for letting his teammates down with his substandard play.

Two months later, doctors at the Mayo Clinic discovered the devastating reason for his physical erosion. He had contracted a rare, degenerative – and fatal – nerve disease that came with the unusually cruel caveat of utterly destroying nerve and muscle function but leaving mental capacity fully intact. His brain would stay fit while his body died all around it.

Yet, Gehrig was still able to stand in front of tens of thousands and talk about his good fortune amidst being on the edge of a horrific fall into pain and helplessness.

Through it all, Eleanor was there for him. True to their vows, she had shared the glorious days of the better and bravely supported him through the very worst. Sometimes, even an Iron Horse cannot shoulder it all alone. For Gehirg, the renowned rock of the New York Yankees, Eleanor was his rock.

Although it was Gehrig who had to endure the awful physical toll of his disease, Eleanor had to withstand the emotional cost, bearing witness to his agonizing slide without being able to do anything to stop it. She could only comfort him as it continued to worsen, all the while having to swallow her own grief as she displayed her strength for him.

Less than two years after he stepped off of the baseball field for good, Lou Gehrig died – just days before his 38th birthday.

As an extraordinary postscript to this awful ending, ALS typically has a three-to-five year cycle from symptom onset to fatality. In Gehrig’s case, his eventual timetable likely meant that he played at least a full season or two while he was dying of a disease that attacked the primary skills he needed to compete. Not only did he play, he excelled nearly to the very end. And he played every game without let up, earning every bit of his unyielding metallic nickname.

Fittingly, he was buried in Valhalla, New York – named after the mythological Norse hall to honor fallen warriors. Unquestionably, the exemplary manner in which he handled the twists and turns of his life made such a final resting place all the more appropriate.