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Mudville: April 20, 2024 10:14 am PDT

In Rides The Horse

The misery for the St. Louis Browns – a condition they faced often during their existence – was almost over on the afternoon of June 15, 1923. Trailing 10-0 with two outs in the ninth inning against the New York Yankees, right fielder Jack Tobin came to bat facing Herb Pennock.

At that time, Tobin was one of the American League’s best hitters: from 1919-23 he batted .327, .342, .351, .331, and .317; and he finished with a career BA of .315, an OBP of .366, and a slugging percentage of .424. He was 1-for-4 that game, having singled in the seventh inning. In the ninth he hit a grounder to the Yankees’ first baseman, who gloved it and stepped on the bag for the final out.

But that 3 unassisted play – it’s only known as that now, as players back then were not assigned numbered positions –  made a century ago on June 15th, was more than the conclusion of a game now lost to history. It was the first play made by one of baseball’s legends in his major league debut, Lou Gehrig.

The best Gehrig biography – and one of the best baseball biographies – is Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig. In an early chapter, Eig recounts the almost Hollywood-like events of Gehrig’s first few weeks with the Yankees.

The “Iron Man” signed with the Yankees on April 30. On June 11, he arrived at Yankee Stadium to officially join the team. Accompanying him was Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who discovered him playing at Columbia, and Andy Coakley, his baseball coach at the University. They took him to the Yankee clubhouse, where Gehrig saw Babe Ruth oiling his glove. He was introduced to manager Miller Huggins, who told Gehrig to get a uniform. After he was fitted for one, Miller took him to the field, where players were taking batting and fielding practice. Legend has it that Gehrig picked up one of Babe Ruth’s bats when he went into the batting cage. He let the first few pitches go, then started swinging and the results were a barrage of home runs. For the next few days, Gehrig sat on the Yankee bench watching the games. Four days after his batting exhibition, Miller inserted him into the lineup for the final inning of the 10-0 Yankee victory. Two days later, he made another defensive appearance, and on June 18, with the Yankees trailing by eight runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Gehrig pinch hit for Aaron Ward, and struck out.

On July 7, with the Yankees again leading the St. Louis Browns by 10 runs, Gehrig pinch hit for the pitcher and laced a ball off the right field fence for his first major league hit. On August 1, Huggins sent him to the Yankee farm team in Hartford to play every day. When Hartford finished its season, Gehrig rejoined the team on September 26. The team took a train to Boston and Wally Pipp injured his ankle stepping off the train. Gehrig started the game against the Red Sox and homered in his first at bat, the first four-bagger of his career. In a double-header the next day, he had four hits.

First baseman Lou Gehrig #4 of the New York Yankees shakes hands with teammate Babe Ruth #3 circa 1923-34. (Photo by National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MLB via Getty Images)

The Yankees won the pennant in 1923. In 13 games, Gehrig, then only 20, went 11 for 26 for a .423 average, with one home run, and eight RBIs. He played most of the following season in the minors, and played less than he did the year before, but still managed six hits in 12 at-bats.

In 1925, Gehrig made the team out of spring training, and on June 1, he replaced Pipp and played 2,130 games before he took himself out of a contest in Detroit (with Wally Pipp, then retired, in the stands).

It’s been 100 years since Gehrig’s debut, 84 years since his infamous streak ended (and 38 since it was broken) and 82 years since his death, at 37, by a crippling illness more famously known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” than its scientific name amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS), yet he’s as much a part of baseball’s iconography now as when he played.

(June was a special month for Gehrig: he was born June 19, 1903, made his major league debut that month, his playing streak started on June 1, 1925, he died on June 02, 1941, and his streak ended just before June, on May 30, 1939).

Recently, I asked Eig why Gehrig remains in our consciousness.

“I think the main reason Gehrig remains a mythic figure is that he died so young. His speech (‘I consider myself the luckiest man…’) added drama to an already dramatic situation. He showed extraordinary courage, especially given that he had always been so reticent to speak. That’s why they made a movie. The movie only added to the drama Gehrig had given us,” said Eig, who has gone on to write acclaimed books about Jackie Robinson, Al Capone, and Muhammad Ali; and most recently a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The fact that he was an athletic superstar plays into the mythology. There was Gehrig, this big, strong slugger who was struck by an illness that reduced his ability to be all those things: a star athlete, physically powerful, a man nicknamed “The Iron Man.”

“Without a doubt!” said Eig. “It’s the stuff of Greek tragedy.”

(Cal Ripken broke Gehrig’s streak by 502 games – a little more than three full seasons – but the notion of a record for continuous games played will always belong to Gehrig, despite Ripken’s awesome accomplishment.)

While Eig believes you can tell the Lou Gehrig story without talking about Wally Pipp, the two have become inextricably linked. Accounts vary as to why Pipp did not play the game in which Gehrig’s streak began (a famous, but probably faulty, account says he told manager Huggins he had a headache); but Eig’s bio states It seems to fit in with American folklore: if you get a lucky break and make the most of it, you’ll prevail. However he got into that game, Gehrig more than prevailed.

“I like the Wally Pipp story, but I do think you can tell Gehrig’s story without Pipp. Lou was such a huge talent it wasn’t going to take long before he cracked the starting lineup,’ said Eig. “Pipp was headed for the bench sooner or later. But the beauty of the Pipp story comes later, when Gehrig establishes his streak. Gehrig and Pipp become legendary because Gehrig gets an opportunity, grabs it, and doesn’t let go. If Lou had replaced Pipp but didn’t go on to play 2130 straight games, the legend would not have been the same.”

Pipp was 31 when Gehrig’s streak began, and while he might have known his days as the Yankees’ first baseman were drawing to a close, he helped the younger Gehrig with his fielding and other parts of the game.

“I do believe that Pipp was a good man, a good teammate, and a generous mentor to Lou.” said Eig. “But I think most ballplayers went out of their way to help younger players break in, even if it meant they would eventually cede their jobs to those younger men. Circle of life, right?”

“The Yankees knew right away they had a star. There was no way Pipp was going to get much playing time,” according to Eig.

The Pride Of The Yankees, US lobbycard, left from top: Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Babe Ruth, center from left: Babe Ruth, Gary Cooper, 1942. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Some numbers bear him (and the Yankees’ thinking) out.

Pipp was sold to the Cincinnati Reds after the 1925 season (for only $7,000) and he played three more seasons. He retired with a lifetime batting average of .281. He hit 90 home runs in 6,914 career at bats, whereas by the end of 1927, Gehrig had reached 84 home runs in 1,949 at bats. He hit his 91st home run in 1928, and would go on to hit 402 more.

Last year, I asked a group of serious baseball fans to list their favorite baseball films. Points were given to films based on their placing on the list: their favorite film garnered 10 points, second favorite was given nine points, etc. In the final listing, that Gehrig movie, Pride of the Yankees, was rated the third best-liked movie.

Starring the perfectly cast Gary Cooper as Gehrig, and with Babe Ruth playing himself, Pride of the Yankees was a big hit in 1942, and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor (but won only for best film editing). Included in the cast were real-life Yankees Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig, and Bob Muesel. Also playing himself was Bill Stern, who hosted the first sports talk radio show in America and was an inaugural class member inducted into the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame, along with Red Barber, Don Dunphy, Ted Husing, and Graham McNamee.

Pride is about as accurate as most Hollywood productions, which means not very,” said Eig. “Eleanor (Lou’s wife) helped shape the movie, which helps explain why Lou’s parents come off badly.”

In another excellent biography, Goldwyn, based on the life of movie mogul and Pride producer Samuel Goldwyn, author A. Scott Berg reports that Goldman watched the newsreel footage of Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech; and when it was over he was in tears and immediately began making plans for a film about Gehrig. He hired three well-known film writers – Paul Galico, who was a sports writer at the New York Daily News; Jo Swerling (who worked on the script for It’s a Wonderful Life and the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Lifeboat), and Herman J. Mankiewicz (who with Orson Welles co-wrote Citizen Kane.)

In 1978, Hollywood again tried to present Gehrig’s life with a TV film called A Love Affair: the Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story.

The cover for the magazine The Commentator features a watercolor portrait of Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees in August, 1938 and published in New York, New York. There is a feature story about Gehrig's durability after playing 2,000 consecutive games. (Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images)

Edward Herrman and Blythe Danner starred respectively as Lou and Eleanor (although Eleanor got first billing in the title) and Ramon Bieri portrayed Babe Ruth (as this time Ruth was unavailable). Unlike Pride, this film dealt with the rift that developed between Gehrig and Ruth.

“I think the Herman TV show is just as sappy as Pride. And just as accurate – or inaccurate. I don’t expect much accuracy from Hollywood,” said Eig.

Dr. Gerry Molyneaux, Ph.D., is a retired film professor who coached high school baseball. His number one baseball film is John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (he has written a bio of Sayles), but he said, “By all means, Pride of the Yankees is in the top ten. I think the movie inspired me to be a Yankee fan, and I was for several years.  I even wrote a poem about their loss (in the 1960 World Series) to the Pirates.” He said one of his students leaked it to a reporter, and it was published in the local paper.

He taught a sports movie course but did not include Pride of the Yankees “because my audience (college students) would have found it too slow and because black and white (films) turns them off.”

In retrospect, he said he should have shown them the film’s final scene, in which Cooper recites the “Luckiest Man” speech.

How does he think his students would have reacted to the conclusion?“With some background, I imagine they would appreciate the moment,” said Molyneaux, adding, “even without background, Sam Goldwyn was touched.”

And I guess that, being touched, is the legacy of Lou Gehrig’s life.

***

By the way, if you’re putting together your summer reading list, I strongly suggest you include Jonathan Eig’s Luckiest Man, A. Scott Berg’s Goldwyn and Gerry Molyneaux’s John Sayles: An Unauthorized Biography of the Pioneering Indie Filmmaker (it’s unauthorized but Sayles sent Molyneaux a letter saying Molyneaux had his approval to approach his friends and colleagues and that it was okay for them “to squeal” about him.)

You’ll be glad you did.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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