Who was Lou Gehrig?

Lou Gehrig's accomplishments on the field made him an authentic American hero, but his tragic early death from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis made him a legend.

The son of German immigrants, Gehrig was the only one of four children to survive. He was preparing to enter Columbia University when he was advised by Giants Manager John McGraw to play summer professional baseball under an assumed name ("Henry Lewis"). "Everyone does it," McGraw explained, even though the illegal ballplaying could have jeopardized Gehrig's collegiate sports career. Gehrig was discovered after playing a dozen games for Hartford of the Eastern league. As a result, Gehrig was banned from intercollegiate sports during his freshman year, 1921-22.

Gehrig returned to sports to play fullback during Columbia's 1922 football season, and then pitched and played first for the Columbia Nine in 1923. Signed by Yankee scout Paul Krichell in 1923, Gehrig returned to Hartford and hit .304. Called up to the majors in September, he hit .423 in 26 at-bats.

Manager Miller Huggins petitioned McGraw to permit Gehrig to replace the ailing Wally Pipp on the Yanks' roster for the World Series. McGraw, always looking for an edge, exercised his prerogative and refused. The Yankees won anyway. After a full season at Hartford, where Gehrig hit .369, he became a Yankee for good in 1925.

A tireless worker with a record 2,130 consecutive games played (this record has since been broken by Cal Ripken, Jr.), Gehrig spent his whole career in New York, the nation's media capital. But it seemed that another teammate always got more headline attention-first Babe Ruth, then Joe DiMaggio. When historian Fred Lieb asked Gehrig about playing in Ruth's shadow, Gehrig's answer was true to form: "It's a pretty big shadow. It gives me lots of room to spread myself."

Gehrig's consecutive-game streak didn't come easily. He played every game for more than 13 years despite a broken thumb, a broken toe, and back spasms. Later in his career Gehrig's hands were X-rayed, and doctors were able to spot 17 different fractures that had "healed" while Gehrig continued to play. Despite having pain from lumbago one day, he was listed as the shortstop and leadoff hitter. He singled and was promptly replaced but kept the streak intact.

His lifetime batting average was .340, fifteenth all-time highest, and he amassed more than 400 total bases on five occasions. Only 13 men have achieved that level of power in a season. Ruth did it twice, and Chuck Klein did it three times. Gehrig is one of only seven players with more than 100 extra-base hits in one season, and only he and Klein accomplished the feat twice.

In 13 years, Gehrig averaged 147 RBIs a season. No player was to reach the 147 mark in a single season until George Foster did it in 1977. And, as historian Bill Curran points out, Gehrig accomplished it "while batting immediately behind two of history's greatest base-cleaners, Ruth and DiMaggio." Gehrig's 184 RBIs in 1931 remains the second highest single season total in American League history.

After batting .295 in 1925, Gehrig hit .313, the first of 12 consecutive years he would top .300, and led the league with 20 triples in 1926. The Yanks won the pennant; Gehrig hit .348 in the World Series, but the Yankees lost to Rogers Hornsby's Cardinals in seven games.

Ruth and Gehrig began dominating the baseball headlines in 1927, in a way two players had never done before. That year Ruth hit 60 homers, breaking his old record of 59, and Gehrig clouted 47, more than anyone other than Ruth had ever hit. As late as August 10th, Gehrig had more homers than the Babe, but Ruth's closing kick was spectacular. Together they out-homered every team in baseball except one.

The Yankees chased away all competition, winning the flag by 19 games over the A's and sweeping the Pirates in the World Series. Ruth was not eligible for the Most Valuable Player Award, because he had won it before, so it went to Gehrig. In 1928, they tied for the RBI lead with 142 and put on quite a show in the World Series. Despite being walked six times, Gehrig hit .545 and slugged a stunning 1.727.

On June 3, 1932, Gehrig became the first American Leaguer to hit four home runs in a game. After Gehrig's third homer to right field in a game against Philadelphia, an upset Connie Mack removed pitcher George Earnshaw and demanded that Earnshaw stay with him to watch reliever Roy Mahaffey pitch to Gehrig. Gehrig's fourth homer was to left field, and only a great catch by Al Simmons kept Gehrig from hitting his fifth homer of the day.

Gehrig won the Triple Crown in 1934, with a .363 average, 49 homers, and 165 RBIs, and was chosen Most Valuable player in both 1927 and 1936. Despite his towering size, Gehrig stole home 15 times in his career, and he batted .361 in 34 World Series games with 10 homers, eight doubles, and 35 RBIs. He also holds the record for career grand slams at 23, he hit 73 three-run homers, and he hit 166 two-run shots, giving him the highest average of RBIs per homer of any player with more than 300 home runs.

Click here to read Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech.

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