July 6 - Luckiest Man
In the era before batting helmets and double-knit uniforms and baseball mitts the
size of peach baskets, there were raw-boned ballplayers who signed autographs
for free and established the sport as America's Pastime. I wasn't around back
then, but I long for those days anyway. You would, too, if you read Jonathan Eig's
excellent biography of Lou Gehrig, "Luckiest Man".
Eig's mastery is in providing perspective and historical context to Gehrig's rise as
one of sports most beloved and tragic figures. The book is thoroughly researched,
giving new insight into Gehrig's character (a Hall of Fame Mama's boy), the
cultural and economic forces that shaped him into a notorious cheapskate, and
the fear of authority figures that made him an obedient slugger for far less money
than he might have earned through tough negotiation.
But the book is no rip job. Clearly, Eig - like many of us - is fascinated by Gehrig, about whom little has
been known, until now. In fact, there is so much about Gehrig to like: baseball was his one true joy and
he worked hard to play it as best as he could, back-burning fame, endorsements, and clumsy stabs at
romance. I took something else away from the book, though.
The selflessness which Gehrig and his contemporaries display in Eig's re-telling of events is so
heartening, it reminds me of the old saying, "Class never goes out of style." Ahhh, if that were only true.
But in the 1920s and 1930s, major league teammates actually dined together, arranged blind dates,
and celebrated World Series victories by singing the "Beer Barrel Polka". The camaraderie that comes
through is a reminder of a time when winning - not the size of a paycheck - was what chiefly motivated
people in general, and ballplayers in particular.
Imagine, on the day that Gehrig decides to end his record 2,130 consecutive-game streak, Babe
Dahlgren - designated to take the Iron Horse's place at first base - begs him to reconsider. Or that on
"Lou Gehrig Day" the Yankees choose a doubleheader on July 4 to honor their hero, knowing Yankee
Stadium will be nearly full - as opposed to trying to use the occasion to boost attendance at another
game on a weekday.
Consider Gehrig's humble, but immortal speech that gives the book its title. "Pawing at the dirt with his
feet," Gehrig is portrayed as a shy, reluctant, and awkward speaker, who had to be pushed to
microphone to address the crowd at all. Rather than some sense of entitlement for the gifts he was
receiving, or self-pity for contracting ALS, the disease that would kill him and, soon after, bear his name,
Gehrig professes gratitude for what life has given him.
Given that Gehrig has only sketched out a few general remarks (just in case) and that the speech was
virtually extemporaneous, his delivery invites even more admiration. As my father would say, "They don't
make 'em like that anymore."
Eig also reminds us that for all of Gehrig's remarkable achievements - 493 home runs, .340 lifetime
batting average, an immediate vote into the Hall of Fame - he might well have finished his career as the
second-best player of all time, behind only his early idol, Yankee teammate Babe Ruth, had he lived to
play another four or five years. Even after suffering what is now believed to have been the early onset of
ALS, Gehrig batted .295 and hit 29 home runs in his last full season.
A year later, his career over, Gehrig refused to trade in on his name, instead accepting a real job at a
paltry salary, because he wanted to work and do some good.
They don't make 'em like that anymore.