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.
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.” 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.” 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.” Continue reading