One player I admired throughout my life was Lou Gehrig. This is despite my distaste for all things New York Yankee as he was one stalwart who seemed to share the same innocent love of the game that the fans had. His story was also a tragedy as he was cut down too soon by an ailment that would become synonymous with him.
In Iron Horse, author Ray Robinson has brought together a great portrait of Gehrig through interviews with friends, fellow ballplayers, and writers through the years. He interviewed many people who knew Gehrig personally and professionally.
This is not the hero-worshiping portrayal of Gehrig tainted by the need for patriotism and heroism as depicted in Pride of the Yankees. Instead, Robinson puts Lou out there with his good points and bad for all the world to see. Fans of the star come away with both a deeper understanding and appreciation for the man who held the record for most consecutive games played in the major leagues until Cal Ripken Jr. broke it in 1995. Up until that time, it was thought to be a record that would stand forever.
Gehrig was born to German immigrant parents who had lost three other children – two girls and another boy. The only surviving child, it is well-chronicled what a “Mama’s boy” Gehrig was throughout most of his life. His mother was even known to have gone on road trips with him and the Yankees, a situation the players didn’t mind since she would generally bring delicious delicacies from her kitchen.
Gehrig grew up in a few places around New York City and played stickball with his friends before going on to play both football and baseball for the High School of Commerce and Columbia University. Not a son of privilege, he always felt the sting of social rejection from Columbia, despite the fact they tried to claim him as one of their own in later years.
It was his parent’s poor health that propelled him to give up his (mother’s) dreams of academia and sign for the Yankees. Continuously in the shadow of the great Babe Ruth, he put up staggering numbers year after year in terms of statistics for hitting. Reading the numbers now in considering what is termed “having a good year” for the current crop of ballplayers, Gehrig’s statistics are almost unimaginable. His career batting average came in at .340 and he still holds the record for most career grand slams at 23.
But off the field, Robinson paints a portrait of an insecure man who was sometimes a cry-baby before he matured in later years. Early in his career, it was not uncommon at times to hear him sobbing on the Yankee bench due to his perception of himself as a “failure” for not getting a clutch hit or making an error. Manager Miller Huggins often had to cajole him or nurse him along.
He was socially insecure as well, and a domineering mother didn’t help in that department. It wasn’t until he was 28 that he had his first serious girlfriend. She was the woman he would later marry, Eleanor Twitchell, but his mother never really accepted her and didn’t attend the wedding. She did (forcibly) attend a party afterward where she had threatened to make a scene. It was only the intervention of a friend that probably prevented a blow-up that would have forced Lou to keep her out of his life permanently, although she still exuded a certain influence. When he and Eleanor talked about adoption in the face of their having no children, it was Mama Gehrig’s loud and very public protests that squashed that idea.
His relationship with his fellow players also was uneven. The players that knew him and allowed for his social awkwardness seemed to genuinely like the man. Others thought him aloof, cold, distant, or even harboring a grudge. His relationship with Babe Ruth, whom he followed in the line-up, seemed to be cozy for many years despite the differences in personality. Robinson tries to make the argument that there must have been some resentment by Lou toward Babe since it seemed he was constantly being overshadowed by him. The case is made that the reason for this probably had more to do with the Babe’s larger-than-life personality versus Lou’s awkwardness, but there’s no real evidence that the resentment existed except for maybe a couple of incidents Robinson details. Those, however, can easily be interpreted a different way and it’s easy to believe that the fierce competitor Lou didn’t allow for a selfish look at his own statistics and publicity. Being as shy as he was, would he really care about getting the headlines anyway?
If there is one problem with Iron Horse it is that it focuses too much on the technical and statistical aspects of Gehrig’s life and not on the personal. It is not until almost 200 pages into Iron Horse that his wife Eleanor makes her first appearance. Since they were married for the final10 years of his 38 years of life, that’s a significant portion that seems to get less depth than the rest of Lou’s life. This is especially true when I’d like to read more about the contrast in their actual life versus what was shown in Pride of the Yankees.
Still, Robinson has assembled a good collection of stories about Lou from sources he lists in his acknowledgments, although the book is not footnoted. It’s a bit of a dry read and I had to put it down and pick it up a few times to get through it again after all these years. It’s worth it, as Iron Horse is a good portrait of a player I have admired for years, warts and all.
Categories: Book Reviews