"Let me tell you about heroes. I've covered a lot of them and I'm saying Gehrig is the best of 'em. No front page scandals, no daffy excitements, no horn-piping in the spotlight ... but a guy who does his job and nothing else. He lives for his job, he gets a lot of fun out it, and 50 million other people get a lot of fun out of him, watching him do something better than anybody else ever did it before."
- Walter Brennan in the role of sports writer Sam Blake in the 1942 film, Pride of the Yankees.
Any true baseball fan has heard of Lou Gehrig ... knows he was a Hall of Fame first baseman for the New York Yankees ... and that the "Iron Horse" set a record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games between 1925 and 1939 that stood for some six decades before Cal Ripken Jr. broke it in 1995.
You don't even have to be a fan to have heard about "Lou Gehrig's Disease" - Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS - an incurable fatal neuromuscular disease that ended his career suddenly in 1939 and killed him two years later shortly before his 38th birthday.
With another baseball season starting Sunday night when the Yankees and Boston Red Sox play, I'd like to share some information about this legendary player and man:
• His career numbers include a .340 batting average and 493 home runs. He is the only player to drive in more than 500 runs over three seasons (174 RBIs in 1930, an American League record 184 in 1931, and 151 in 1932). He holds another record of 23 career grand-slams. He even stole home 15 times during his career.
• In 1927, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and Gehrig 47, more than anyone other than Ruth had ever hit. Together they hit more home runs than any other team in baseball except one.
• On June 3, 1932, Gehrig became the fist American League player to hit four home runs in a game, and only a great catch in center field by Al Simmons kept him from hitting a fifth that day at Shibe Park in Philadelphia.
• The 6-foot, 200-pound Gehrig won the Triple Crown in 1934 when he led the American League with his .363 batting average, 49 home runs and 165 RBIs.
But that's mere trivia. It's not the reason his No. 4 became the first jersey number in American professional sports to be retired or why he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939, the year of his retirement. Nor the reason why the Rhode Island chapter of the ALS Association in 200 established "The Spirit of Lou Gehrig Award," which honors community leaders who have displayed compassion and commitment to those who suffer from ALS.
This was a man who exemplified simplicity, courage and fortitude on and off the field, and later when he battled ALS. When Gehrig's hands were X-rayed later in his career, doctors found 17 different fractures that had healed while he continued to play. He played through other ailments, including severe back pain, and illness. He simply went out and did his job every day.
A fierce competitor, Gehrig was not one to charge the mound if he was hit by a pitch. One-time teammate Tommy Heinrich said of Gehrig, "When he got knocked down, he took it. Lou treated it like, 'Sooner or later you'll have to throw the ball over the plate, and when you do I'll cream you.' That's the type of guy he was. I loved him."
Perhaps there is no better example than his "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day" speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939: "Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth."
And here's the conclusion of that speech: "When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift - that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies - that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter - that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body - it's a blessing. 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. So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."
You see, Lou Gehrig was a true hero. A man who loved his job, and loved his fans.
Notes: For more information, go online to http://www.lougehrig.com or to baseballhalloffame.org. And for you movie fans, "Pride of the Yankees" received 11 Oscar nominations and is one of my favorites. Gary Cooper in the role of Gehrig and Teresa Wright as Gehrig's wife, Eleanor. Wright, who passed away on a heart attack at age 86 on March 6 in Connecticut, was asked to throw out the first pitch at a 1998 Yankees game in honor of the anniversary of Gehrig's farewell speech.
n Contact Dave Price at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 881-1220.
LOU GEHRIG FAST FACTS
Birth name: Ludwig Heinrich Gehrig or Henry Louis Gehrig
Nickname: The Iron Horse
Team: New York Yankees
Did you know?: In early 1925, the Yankees offered to trade Gehrig to the Boston Red Sox for first baseman Phil Todt to repay Boston for the blockbuster Babe Ruth trade a few years earlier. The Red Sox turned the Yankees down.
Birth date: June 19, 1903 in New York City
Death date: June 2, 1941 in Riverdale, N.Y.
Burial location: Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y.
College: Columbia University
Did you know?: Gehrig attended Columbia on a scholarship to play football, not baseball.
Football position: Fullback