By Dennis Gaffney
In the 1920s, Lou Gehrig, the Yankees’ "Iron Horse," played a quiet second fiddle to Babe Ruth. Gehrig took center stage after Ruth’s retirement, but then Joe DiMaggio arrived.
While someone with a bigger ego might have been jealous of the unwavering attention that DiMaggio received in 1936, Gehrig welcomed him. Gehrig told reporters he believed DiMaggio would become one of baseball’s all-time greats. In his autobiography, DiMaggio notes Lou’s generous nature: "The fact that he was being taken for granted didn’t bother Gehrig a bit. He was courteous, gracious and informative whenever the writers asked him anything, but he didn’t mind being left to himself."
Gehrig was the son of poor German immigrants whose ambition was to see their son attend college. Lou went to Columbia University for two years on a football scholarship, but his education was cut short when his father became ill. Gehrig left college to sign with the Yankees to pay for his father’s medical bills.
As a player, Gehrig was known for Herculean strength and a humble consistency. Writes DiMaggio, again in his autobiography: "I not only admired Lou but I was amazed by him. . . . To see his broad back and muscular arms as he spread himself at the plate was to give the impression of power as no other ball player I ever saw gave it."
The Hollywood movie about Gehrig’s life starring Gary Cooper was called "The Pride of the Yankees," and Gehrig was. He gained the nickname "Iron Horse" for an amazing streak of games played. In a folkloric footnote, Gehrig got his chance to enter the line-up on May 31, 1925, when first baseman Wally Pipp complained of a headache (and may have just wanted to go to the racetrack).
Gehrig didn’t come out of the line-up for 14 years, racking up what was long believed to be an insurmountable record of 2,130 straight games played (a record finally broken in 1995 by the Baltimore Oriole’s Cal Ripken Jr.).
Gehrig took himself out of the line-up on May 2, 1939, surrendering to his then undiagnosed disease that had atrophied his muscles and left him powerless. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) soon entered the American lexicon as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
One of the most poignant moments in baseball history occurred in the summer of 1939, after Gehrig’s diagnosis. The Yankees held a good-bye gathering for Gehrig on the Fourth of July. The teary-eyed Gehrig stood at a microphone and addressed 60,000 fans, saying: "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Said DiMaggio, "There never was a day in sports like July fourth that year at the Yankee Stadium, and I doubt there ever will be again." It’s said that DiMaggio cried twice on the baseball field during his career. The second time was on the day he was honored on October 1, 1949 for Joe DiMaggio Day. The first was during Gehrig’s farewell speech.
Gehrig died two years later, his death coming as DiMaggio was 19 games into his record-breaking 56-game hitting streak.