In the not quite 50 years since his death, Lou Gehrig has become baseball's Abraham Lincoln, a figure of such mythic saintliness that his human qualities have been all but lost. Honest Abe and Larrupin' Lou were a couple of American primitives, one born in a log cabin, the other in an urban slum, who rose to greatness through the time-honored virtues of hard work, sincerity and humility. Indeed, as Ray Robinson writes in his fine biography, Iron Horse—Lou Gehrig in His Time (Norton, $22.50), Gehrig's farewell speech to baseball on July 4, 1939, has become sport's Gettysburg Address. Those opening lines—"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth"—are nearly as familiar to Americans with even the remotest sense of history as "Four score and seven years ago...." And like Lincoln, Gehrig died less than two years after his memorable oration.
Gehrig's is one helluva story. The challenge is to make such a paragon seem human. Robinson, a veteran New York writer, gives it his best shot. Gehrig was, above everything, a decent man, but as Robinson points out, he did have his faults. He was notoriously stingy with his money, if not his time. At times, possibly because of an inherent shyness, he could be cold and distant to those who befriended him. He had occasional flashes of temper. He could hold a grudge, particularly the one he held against Columbia University; he believed that classmates during his two years there had treated him with contempt because of his social background. Finally, he suffered from professional jealousy, although, at least in public, he kept the greeneyed monster at bay most of the time.
Lord knows, if anyone had a right to suffer envy, it was the Iron Horse. After all, he played for 10 years in the shadow of the most compelling figure in the history of sport, Babe Ruth, and whatever marvels he performed, the Babe would top them. Gehrig hit 47 homers in 1927 and was neck and neck with Ruth for the major league championship, until the Babe pulled away dramatically with 17 homers in September and finished with his magical 60. Gehrig had a .529 batting average, with three homers, in the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, but Ruth stole the show with his "called shot" off Charlie Root in Game 3. Not that anyone noticed, but Gehrig homered right afterward. It is perhaps significant that 1935, Gehrig's first year on the Yankees without Ruth, who had departed the year before, was for him a bad one: 30 homers, 119 RBIs and a .329 average. And when he bounced back in 1936 with 49 homers, 152 RBIs and a .354 average, the talk of the town that year was rookie Joe DiMaggio.
Gehrig, it seemed, was destined to be a second banana. The day (June 3, 1932) that he became the first player in this century to hit four home runs in a game was the very one on which John McGraw resigned as manager of the New York Giants. The summer Gehrig played in his 2,000th consecutive game, Johnny Vander Meer pitched consecutive no-hitters, a feat considered much more newsworthy at the time. In fact, the streak, which finally ended in 1939 at 2,130 games, is the one achievement no one probably will ever match. Still, even that had its denigrators, among them the Babe himself, who said, "This Iron Man stuff is just baloney.... The guy ought to learn to sit on the bench and rest."
Not even Ruth, however, could step on Gehrig's lines on the day the Yankees arranged for him to say goodbye. Robinson treats the emotional scene at Yankee Stadium with admirable restraint, allowing Gehrig's own words to carry the day. No need here to underline the profound irony of a great athlete getting his due at a time when his disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now named after him, was rushing him to the grave 17 days before his 38th birthday.
In a touching final chapter, Robinson tells how Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn hired Gary Cooper to play Gehrig in the movie The Pride of the Yankees. Goldwyn thought a diamond had 10 bases, and Cooper, in the words of Lefty O'Doul, his baseball mentor, "threw the ball like an old woman tossing a hot biscuit." In further apparent miscasting, the role of Gehrig's sophisticated wife, Eleanor, who was something of a flapper in her heyday, was assigned to Teresa Wright, who had made a career of portraying sweet young things. However, the movie became a box-office smash and remains a staple on late-night TV schedules. When people in living rooms across the country hear Coop, as Gehrig, say he's "the luckiest man on the face of the earth," there's not a dry eye in the house. And that's as it should be.