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The All-Time MLB Team, First base: Lou Gehrig

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Will there be a bigger landslide this series?

New York Yankees

Much as expected, it wasn’t even close. Getting 80% of the votes, even though he was a member of the Evil Empire, it was a very easy win for a player also known - according to Baseball Reference - as The Iron Horse, Biscuit Pants, Buster, Laruppin’, Crown Prince of Swat, or Columbia. While some of these are obvious - the first is presumably in reference to his consecutive games streak - others perhaps raise more questions than they answer. According to one source, Biscuit Pants was because of his baggy pants over thick legs and a “broad back porch.” Mind you, this is according to a Tripod website, which I was frankly surprised to learn was still a thing in the 2020’s.

Lou Gehrig was born in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, in the city he would make his own. The son of German immigrants, he didn’t learn English until he was five. He first made an impact as a ballplayer at age 17, hitting a grand-slam clean out of Wrigley Field, when playing there for the New York School of Commerce. But it was in football he earned a scholarship to Columbia, playing for their team as a fullback, though dropped out after two years to become a pro baseball player. He signed a contract with the Yankees in April 1923, just a few days after Yankee Stadium opened, paying Gehrig a salary of $2,000 and a bonus of $1,500. He was in the majors less than two months later.

But his fame was not immediate. Over his first two seasons, Gehrig managed only 42 PA, despite going 17-for-38, with Wally Pipp the everyday first baseman for the Yankees. That changed at the beginning of June 1925, when Gehrig pinch-hit and, the next day, was a late switch for Pipp, because the regular had a headache. It would be almost fourteen years before Gehrig would miss another game. He played in 2,130 consecutive contests for the Yankees, setting a record that would stand for 59 years, until broken by Cal Ripken. Gehrig played through several fractures not diagnosed at the time, and even returned to the line-up the day after being hit in the head and knocked unconscious for five minutes.

Gehrig’s breakout season was 1926, when he hit .313 with 16 home-runs and 109 RBI as a 23-year-old. He then went 8-for-23 in the World Series, though the Yankees lost in seven to the Cardinals. But that was just an appetizer for Gehrig’s monstrous 1927 campaign. He hit .373/.474/.765 for a 1.240 OPS, with 47 home-runs and 173 RBI - the latter an American League record which stands to this day. He had 117 extra-base hits, which all-time trails only Babe Ruth’s 119 in the 1921 campaign. The 1927 Yankees are often cited as the greatest team ever, going 110-44, and Gehrig was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player that year (though Babe Ruth, who hit 60 HR and batted .356, was ineligible in those days as a previous winner).

The Yankees steamrollered the Pirates, sweeping them in the World Series, and repeated the medicine in 1928, with the victims being the Cardinals. Gehrig turned in arguable the all-time greatest World Series performances that year. He was retired only five times in seventeen PA, hitting four home-runs, for an OPS of 2.433 which remains the highest ever in the Fall Classic. 1927 was the start of an 11-year streak where Gehrig had an OPS+ of 166 or better, every single season. For comparison, over the last 11 years, Mike Trout (9) is the only batter with more than four such qualifying seasons. He and Ruth former a ferocious double-punch at the heart of the New York “Murderer’s Row”.

Lou Gehrig as Tarzan. Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

After rules changed to allow repeat winners, Gehrig had a run of seven MVP top-5 finishes. But It wasn’t all plain sailing for Gehrig. I stumbled across this embarrassing little incident, which I copy/paste from Wikipedia: “In 1936, at the urging of his wife, Gehrig agreed to hire Babe Ruth’s agent, who, in turn, persuaded him to audition for the role of Tarzan, the Ape Man, after Johnny Weissmuller had vacated the iconic movie role. Gehrig only got as far, though, as posing for a widely distributed, and embarrassing, photo of himself in a leopard-spotted costume. When Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs spotted the outfit, he telegrammed Gehrig, “I want to congratulate you on being a swell first baseman.”” [Gehrig did star in a 1938 Western, Rawhide]

But it was a remarkable run, peaking with Gehrig winning a second MVP award in 1936, when he hit .349 with 49 home-runs and led the league in walks, giving him a .478 on-base percentage. Remarkably, he had more homers than strikeouts (46). a feat he also managed in 1934. Though no-one knew it, however, the tragic end was in sight. Gehrig began to experience tiredness in the second half of the 1938 season, and in spring training the following year, it was apparent something was wrong. That carried over into the regular season, where he hit just 4-for-28, all singles. On May 2, the streak ended, Gehrig benching himself, and the following month he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

There was no cure from the inevitable progress of the disease. On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, and retired his number 4. the first time this had happened in baseball. The player then delivered perhaps the most iconic speech in the history of the game. While only a few sentences were recorded, the rest has been reconstructed from reports at the time:

Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

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 might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. – Thank you.

Less than two years later, Gehrig passed away, at the age of 37. The day, June 2, was officially declared Lou Gehrig Day by MLB last season, His life was made into a movie. The Pride of the Yankees, starring Gary Cooper, which received 11 Academy Award nominations.