Lou Gehrig: Hero and Icon in Turbulent Times

June 19, 2013 was the 167th anniversary of the first organized and recorded baseball game (1846) as well as Lou Gehrig’s 110th birthday.  As a celebration of these events, I will be publishing posts that analyze the importance of Baseball and Lou Gehrig in particular on American Culture.

467px-GehrigCU

A young Lou Gehrig in his Columbia University uniform (1921).

When it comes to sports figures, there have been few who by virtue of their character transcend their physical talent and the sporting world itself and become American cultural icons.  In his illustrious career shortened by tragedy, Lou Gehrig embodied the American cultural values of the era in which he thrived.  While he spent much of his career in the incredible shadow of Babe Ruth, eventually Lou Gehrig would emerge from his Ruthian shadow and personify the values of the 1930’s.  Amidst a world of uncertainty caused by the threat of war and a continuing economic depression, Lou Gehrig stood as a testimony of certainty- playing in 2,130 games until Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) put a sudden and tragic end to his playing days.  His rise from a modest upbringing coupled with his moral fiber and adherence to copybook maxims would serve both as a rags-to-riches story and a testimony to what hard work and personal strength could accomplish.  Through his determination, diligence, strength, and moral fiber, Gehrig became an American hero.

During the 1920s, the brilliance of Gehrig’s game – and anyone else’s game for that matter- was overshadowed by Ruth’s booming drives and personality.  Describing Ruth, baseball historian Donald Honig wrote, “He was a one-man circus, born and molded to entertain, dominate, captivate, and altogether flourish in the imagination…Everything about Ruth was big, big, big, from the statistics to the personality to the impact.  He was Moby Dick in a goldfish bowl.”[1]  In the 1920s, the United States emerged from World War I as a word power, a forced to be reckoned with.  The decade, which would go on to be known as “the Roaring Twenties,” was one where the United States experienced vast economic growth.  The stock market soared as people rushed to buy stock on credit, the automobile was mass produced, and radio production went through the roof as the medium flourished.  Fresh off of the labor unrest and progressive movements of the early twentieth century, wages were higher than ever before, and hours were lower than ever before.  There was more money to be spent for the average consumer, and the working and middle classes had a lot of time on their hands. Coupled with an escapism fueled by the bitterness of the scientific killing of World War I and the glorification of science, the increase in both free time and money to spend lead to a growth in both consumption and a mass culture, and no one epitomized this more than Babe Ruth.  The people of America craved as much as they could get and Babe Ruth was the poster child for excess.  “To whatever engaged him he was the mightiest:  hitter, pitcher, womanizer, drinker, eater.”[2]  Writing on him in 1921, F.C. Lane wrote, “Babe Ruth excels all competition by a margin so wide that there is simply no comparison.”[3]

Throughout the 1920s he smashed his and everyone else’s baseball records.  He spent money liberally, drove around in automobiles at excessive speeds, and endorsed any and all products he could.  His pictures were smeared all over the papers and in magazines, signing baseballs for kids, goofing around, smashing balls over the fence.  People across the country tuned in their radios, picked up their papers, and (during the season and during his barnstorming tours) rushed to the ballpark to see what kind of show Ruth could put on.  On Ruth, Warren Susman wrote, “For the 1920s he was the perfect creation for an increasingly mechanized world that still hungered for the extraordinary personality, that tired of the Model T automobiles and yet was also appreciative of their virtues – wanting only something more, something bigger than life.”[4]  Babe Ruth provided exactly that.  As the biggest player for the biggest team in the biggest city, he provided the decadence and excessiveness that the United States people desired from their hero in the 1920s.

However, despite the persona of Ruth, New York sportswriters started to take an interest in a homegrown talent who had already began to make a name for himself in the 1920s by the name of Henry Louis (or Lou) Gehrig.  AttendingColumbiaUniversity on a football scholarship, Gehrig ended up gaining his notoriety on the baseball field.  His excellence in pitching, hitting, and fielding led scouts and coaches to dub him “the best college player since George Sisler,” but soon his ability to hit the ball would lead to another moniker – “the Babe Ruth of the colleges.”[5]  After one year of playing varsity baseball, Gehrig was signed by his hometown Yankees.  He spent two years in the minors, but then came to the big league club in 1925 – filling in for the injured and aging first baseman Wally Pipp.  Pushed into the starting lineup because of Pipp’s headaches, Gehrig would begin a streak of 2,130 consecutive games played which would begin a career full of two MVPs, a Triple Crown, and thirteen consecutive seasons of both 100 RBI and 100 runs scored, cementing a name for himself among baseball’s immortal men.   However, he would spend a good portion of his career and the entirety of the 1920s in the swollen and portly shadow of Babe Ruth.

Together, Gehrig and Ruth would form one of baseball’s most famous and productive lineup parings for nearly a decade.  In 1927, as part of the famed lineup known as ‘murderers row’ Ruth would break his own record by hitting 60 homeruns, while Gehrig would hit 47 ( the most ever by anyone not named Ruth) take the RBI crown and win the MVP award.  Gehrig’s performance lead John Kieran, sportswriter for the New York Times, to declare, “Lou Gehrig is the heir apparent and make no mistake.”[6]  Certainly, Gehrig could hit like Ruth, but that was the extent of their commonality.  Speaking of their differences, Honig said, “Ruth had Rabelaisian flamboyance and was a booming extrovert, a prodigal spender, but his younger partner was shy, insecure, and a notorious penny pincher whose preferred diversion was to sit in a rowboat and fish.”[7]  Ruth was larger than life, and it seemed that homeruns naturally jumped from his portly frame as he sported his usual carefree chubby grin.  Gehrig on the other hand, had a chiseled physique and wore a slight grin that emanated modesty.   Seen as a hard worker from the beginning, a sportswriter once declared in 1927, “They say that Lou Gehrig would rather play ball than eat, which is saying a lot for any ball player.”[8]  While Gehrig seemly lived only off of the nourishment provided by baseball, the mere suggestion that Ruth felt the same way could only be taken as a joke.  Although Ruth would rule the 1920s, the table was already set for Gehrig to emerge from behind Ruth’s shadow – the only question was when.

While the 1920s were a decade of decadence and excessiveness, the 1930s presented the antithesis of the Roaring Twenties.  The stock market crash of October 29, 1929 put a halt to the consumption of the 1920s and sent the United States into a decade of depression.  On the international front, the ascension to power of firebrand Adolf Hitler in the war ravaged Germany in 1933 coupled with Imperialist Japan’s invasion of Manchuria threatened to spark another World War (indeed these two occurrences would be precursors to the second World War).  The United States had sought a policy of isolationism since the 1920s, choosing to not entangle itself with alliances.  However, the actions of Imperialist Japan and Hitler made Americans question the ability of America to turn a blind eye to international events.  By 1933, America had been deeply entangled in economic depression and the threat of war hung in the balance.  While the 1920s was a time of decadence, escapism, and consumption, uncertainty had marred the beginning of the 30s and more uncertainty loomed on the horizon.

The 1930s was a decade of new concerns and the American people needed a new type of hero.  Babe Ruth began to age and his skills were deteriorating.  Historian William E. Leuchtenberg wrote of the larger-than-life idol in 1934 that he was, “a pathetic figure, tightly corseted, a cruel lampoon of former greatness.”[9]  Cruel as it maybe, the Babe only managed to smack 22 home runs that year as a part-time player.  Ruth would go on to play 28 more games for the Boston Braves in the National League in 1935, but he managed to hit only .181 with six home runs before he had to hang up his cleats.  As Ruth faded away, New York and America needed a different hero, in its most turbulent of times.  The American people needed someone they could rely on, that would be symbolic of the strength and determination that America longed for – someone who could inspire hope to the masses.  Reluctant as he might have been to assume such a role, Lou Gehrig was the right man for the job.

In 1932, Time Magazine began their article covering the World Series with a quick biographical sketch of Lou Gehrig, which illustrated the values that Gehrig capturied..  Calling him “one of the few professional baseballers who plays on a home town team” the article notes that, “his Teutonic mother and father were caretakers at a Columbia fraternity house.  Son Lou went to Columbia, played on the ball team, signed a contract with the Yankees.”[10]  Later the article would continue to mention some of his accolades and contributions to this series.  Although not a particularly long sketch, this article is important for two reasons.  One, a writer covering the Yankees chose to focus more on Gehrig than Ruth.  Instead of starting off writing about Ruth, the writer shines the spotlight on Gehrig, who had been playing in Ruth’s shadow for seven years.  Two, it also brings to light to the national public the story of his life which could serve as hope to the destitute.  Under a year later, in covering his breaking the consecutive games played streak Time Magazine noted that Gehrig, “never wore a hat, over coat or vest until he was famous.”[11]  He was the son of German immigrants who made good and became a superstar.  From the impoverished streets of New York he rose to become a national celebrity on his hometown team.  In a time where countless thousands were experiencing the poverty brought on and made worse by the depression, Lou Gehrig was a symbol hope for a better life in a world where there was little.

However, while he had risen from the streets to stardom, sportswriters were quick to note the character virtues that allowed Gehrig his ascension.  Writing of Gehrig, John Kieran of the New York Times noted, “Lou lives by copy-book maxims.  He has all the sturdy virtues.  He doesn’t drink.  He goes to bed early.  He is straightforward and upstanding.”[12]  President of the American League, Ban Johnson, declared that Gehrig was, “a great example for the youth of today.  Gehrig causes umpires no trouble…attends strictly to business and has always given his club his best efforts.”[13]  By 1934, Gehrig had completely emerged out of Ruth’s shadow as he won the Triple Crown in batting Ruth’s last year in a Yankee uniform.  In an Associated Press article announcing his feat, Gehrig was declared “seemingly invulnerable and tireless.”[14]  Already owner of several awards and records along with being a Triple Crown winner at 31, Gehrig was already a household name.  Writing about what his former teammates said about baseball’s iron Man, Donald Honig states, “There is an almost party-line consensus:  Great.  Good.  Quiet. Strong.  Modest.”[15]  Fit with a new moniker – The Iron Horse – Gehrig personified just about everything that a man should be.  In the uncertain times of the 1930s Gehrig was one of the few sure things.  You could count on him to show up, play like hell, go home, and do it again tomorrow.  Gehrig represented will power, and was a testament to what hard work could accomplish.  He was a beacon of hope for a turbulent America.

With Ruth out of the Yankee uniform, Gehrig took center stage.  Gehrig was appointed captain – a position which had not been given out since Ruth had his own captainship withdrawn as a disciplinary measure by a former manager ten years ago.  Noting his appointment, columnist James P. Dawson noted, “In his appointment as captain is seen a move at last to popularize the player who has been practically unnoticed through ten years that Ruth reigned.”[16]  With the departure of Ruth, Gehrig became the heart of the Yankees.  More pictures began appearing of him in the New York Times, outside of the ballpark.  He was always neatly dressed in a tie, hair done, and often with his wife Eleanor at his side.  Whether he was in or out of uniform, he always wore a slight grin on his face.  On the field, he was pure grit, playing through injuries and on his way to winning a record 2nd MVP in 1936.  As Babe Ruth left the spotlight, Lou Gehrig became the team leader in the clubhouse, on the field, and in the newspapers.  He was now the hard working media darling, superstar, and captain of America’s best ball club.

While Lou Gehrig displayed toughness and determination on the field, off the field he was the model citizen.  Groups such as the Young Men’s Board of Trade wanted to give him awards for his “outstanding contribution toward civic betterment.”[17]  Much like Ruth, Gehrig contributed to and made appearances to support children’s groups.  Unlike Ruth, however, Gehrig actually provided children with a positive role model.  In remembrance of Lou Gehrig, his former teammate said of him, “One of the nicest fellows ever lived, Lou was…always every inch a gentleman.  Lou was the kind of boy if you had a son he’s the kind of person you’d like your son to be.”[18]  Another group, The New York City Baseball Federation, honored Gehrig by giving him two signed baseball bats and a gold medal with the inscription ‘He Kept Himself Fit’ for being a model to the youth of the city.  Originally there was supposed to be only one bat, but so many young sandlot players and fellow major league ball players wanted to sign the bat that they had to acquire another one.[19] Now the pride of the Yankees with the departure of Ruth, it was Gehrig’s turn to receive the admiration of children.

Although both Ruth and Gehrig were admired by children, they were admired for different reasons.  Ruth was more of a boisterous showman, Gehrig was the quiet steady producer.  While Ruth was admired for his antics and homeruns, Gehrig was more of a model of dependability, determination, and how to live.  However, Gehrig was a role model to boys because people from sportswriters to youth groups wanted to have a figure that the youth (especially boys) could look up to and aspire to be.  In the 1930s, large waves of immigration (which was massively restricted in 1924) brought about crowded cities with a large population of children.  Since laws that took form in the Progressive movement of the early 20th century prevented youths from working, children had spare time on their hands.  Nationwide movements to building parks and ballfields were constructed as a means of giving young boys the outlet of playing sports instead of getting in trouble.  In Gehrig, people saw a model for these young urban boys to follow after.  After he left baseball, Gehrig was even appointed as Parole Commissioner by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to “help youngsters lead useful lives.”[20]  With his adherence to copy-book maxims, virtue and strength, Gehrig was promoted as a man to be admired and emulated.  For the poverty-stricken boys living in crowded impoverished cities in the 1930s, Gehrig served as a testimony of what a man can accomplish through virtue of character.

Prior to the 1937 season, Lou Gehrig had already cemented himself as a national icon.  Tired of fielding questions about Gehrig, Secretary Edward Brannick of the New York Giants told a reporter, “everyone talks to you about Gehrig, Gehrig, Gehrig.  You can’t get away from it…don’t anyone ever talk about a Giant ball player?”[21]  In the off-season of 1937, Gehrig announced his intention to topple almost every single record on the books.  While, Gehrig marched on, his popularity continued to rise.  He took orphans on outings, gave lectures at Columbia, signed on to be in a motion picture (Rawhide), endorsed cigarettes – further cementing his popularity – all the while continuing his consecutive game streak to the awe of the American public.  Perhaps jealous of the notoriety Gehrig was now receiving, a retired Babe Ruth told a reporter, “I think Lou’s making one of the worse mistakes a ball player can make by trying to keep up with that ‘iron man’ stuff.”[22]  However, despite some minor groans from some people, Gehrig continued to play up until his 2,130th game, until he voluntarily pulled himself from the lineup.

On May 3, 1939,  Gehrig sat the bench for the Yankees.  He was mired in an eight game slump, but there was obviously something else wrong with him as he noticed his muscle strength fading away.  He never played another game, and on June 22, 1939, shortly after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, it was announced that he was retiring from baseball.  However, although he was retiring his iconoclast status was far from being over.  John Kieran declared, “He put everything he had into everything he did.”[23]  Despite the grim outlook, numerous articles in the New York Times noted his often present smile was still present on his face.  One New York Times notes, “The Iron Horse was cheerful and laughing again yesterday, just as he had been the day before when he accepted his lot with a ready grin.”[24]  While Gehrig was cheered and messages of support poured in from his fans, sportswriters rushed to sum up the man that had become the glimmer of determination and consistency in the turbulent 1930s.  Time Magazine noted, “U.S. sportswriters wreathed their columns with encomiums seldom bestowed on the living…they crowned Lou Gehrig’s Honesty, Modesty, Courage.”[25]  The Yankees had a Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4, 1939, where 61,808 fans, the Mayor of New York, and many of his former teammates.  It was on this day, so shaken with emotion, that Gehrig would cement his virtue among a nation.  Declaring himself, “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” he modestly accepted the praise of others, gifts, and wept.  Although Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had not spoken together in years, Ruth threw his arms around Gehrig and wiped away his tears. In his covering of the event, reporter John Drebinger wrote, “it was without a doubt one of the most touching scenes ever witnessed on a ballfield.”[26]  Later that year, the Baseball Writers Association of America waved the one-year waiting requirement for the Hall of Fame and enshrined him through special election.  In 1940, Gehrig became the first ever baseball player to have his number retired by his ballclub.  Lou Gehrig, the very definition of determination and strength, would soon be gone and everyone wanted him to know just how much he had meant to his city and the nation.

After his death on June 2, 1941, sportswriters, players, managers, and friends tried to say something about the ever-lasting legacy the 37 year-old created.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt even sent flowers to his widow as a symbolic gesture of what the man meant to the nation.  Sportswriter Westbrook Pegler, wrote this about Gehrig’s character: “That was what made Gehrig great above and beyond his size and achievements, and it is no credit to the breed that so many of us are so unlike this fine man that we must stand in such awe of his simple virtues.”[27]  While Gehrig was a tremendous and gifted hitter, it was far less his skill and far more his character that propelled him to be a cultural icon.  In his short career, his determination, strength, consistency, and moral fiber would give America a hero in which they could look toward during the turbulence and uncertainty that was ever-present in the 1930s.  Lou Gehrig gave hope to an economically downtrodden nation, gave people a rock-solid idol in a time of uncertainty, and provide America’s youth with a seemingly perfect role model.  While he broke records with his bat, his heart and courage is what made a lasting impact on 1930s America.


[1] Donald Honig.  Baseball America (New York:  Galahad Books, 1985), 120.
[2] Honig, 120.
[3] F.C. Lane.  “Why Babe Ruth has Become a National Idol.”  Baseball Magazine (October 1921), 484.
[4] Warren  Susman.  Culture as History (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1984), 148.
[5] “Yanks Sign Gehrig, Columbia Slugger.”  New York Times, June 12, 1923, 16.
[6] John Kieran.  “The Sports of The Times.”  New York Times, Oct. 26, 1927, 35.
[7] Honig, 164.
[8] “The ‘Babe Ruth’ of Columbia Now ‘Columbia Lou’ of the Yanks.”  New York Times, June 29, 1927, 21.
[9] Susman, 148.
[10] “World Series,” Time Magazine, Oct. 10, 1932, 32.
[11] “1,308 Straight,”  Time Magazine, Aug. 28, 1933, 38.
[12] John Kieran.  “The Sports of the Times,”  New York Times, Aug. 13, 1933, S2.
[13] “Best Player Award Goes to Lou Gehrig,”  New York Times, Oct. 12, 1927, 32.
[14] “Gehrig Led American League In Hitting for 1934 With .363,”  New York Times, Dec.  3, 1934, 24.
[15] Honig, 165.
[16] James P. Dawson.  “Gehrig to Captain Yanks; Sees Pennant for Club,” New York Times, Apr. 13, 1935, 18.
[17] John Kieran.  “Sports of the Times,”  New York Times, Jan.  22, 1937, 15.
[18] Lawrence S. Ritter, The Glory of Their Times (New York:  MacMillian Press, 1966), 245.
[19] “Gehrig, Honored at Dinner-Dance, Receives Two Huge Baseball Bats,”  New York Times, Apr. 15, 1935, 23.
[20] S.J. Woolf.   “Gehrig Goes to Bat for Youth,”  New York Times,  October 22, 1939, 112.
[21] John Kieran.  “Sports of the Times,”  New York Times, Jan. 22, 1937, 15.
[22] “Babe Ruth Discusses Gehrig, Dean, The 1937 Pennant Races – And Golf,”  New York Times, Jan. 27, 1937, 25.
[23] John Kieran.  “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, Jun. 22, 1939, 15.
[24] “Gehrig Is Amazed and Cheered As Messages From Fans Pour In,” New York Times, Jun. 23, 1939, 27.
[25] “Immortal Gehrig,” Time Magazine, Dec. 25, 1939, 23.
[26] John Drebinger, “61,808 Fans Roar Tribute to Gehrig,” New York Times, Jul. 5, 1939, 21. [27] “In Memoriam,” Time Magazine, Jun. 16, 1941, 15.

3 thoughts on “Lou Gehrig: Hero and Icon in Turbulent Times

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