In 1927, the year my dad was born, there were two baseball players who dominated the headlines in their quest to hit the most homers in a single season. One of them was Babe Ruth, who would finish with 60. The other player, who ended the year with 47 and whose life would come to a tragic end 14 years later, was my favorite player of all time.
Yes, The Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig, stands atop my shrine of beloved baseball legends. My admiration for this man even exceeds that which I hold toward my favorite Cubs players; Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and Kerry Wood. These three players did/do share several characteristics with the legend who represented the New York Yankees for 17 years. Heart, humility, and honor. But it was Larrupin’ Lou who set the tone. Allow me to tell you a little something about each of the traits that he possessed and how his influence continues to mold the game today.
Heart. Lou hit his very first grand slam when his high school team traveled to Chicago for an inter-city championship game. Guess which field he was at? That’s right, Cubs Park! The name would be changed to Wrigley Field six years later. Signed by the Yankees in 1923, his hitting prowess would continue until he took himself out of the lineup, due to the terrible disease that cut his career short at the young age of 36. The debilitating effects of his illness were all that could stop this man. Beginning in 1926 he went on a streak of 13 consecutive seasons in which he had 100 or more RBI. His career record of 23 grand slams lasted until 2013 when it was broken by Alex Rodriguez. But the most mind-boggling record he set, of course, was the 2,130 consecutive game streak he tallied. He played with a broken thumb. He played with a broken toe. He played through the pain of lower back spasms. He played with his heart in every defensive performance at first base and every time he stepped into the box. Compare this to players today, who miss games for “stiffness” or “fatigue.” You can count on one hand the Major Leaguers who exhibited comparable mental and physical stamina throughout their careers.
Humility. Records are nice. But the way Lou lived his life and how he handled catastrophic news in the eye of the public is what will be remembered most. God had a mission for him. It included hard work, perseverance and an amazing propensity at excelling in baseball. However, the true measure of his greatness was not in the numerous records he set on the field. It was measured by his humble personality which he showcased during the speech he recited when the Yankees honored him on July 4, 1939. Have a listen:
Honor. Gehrig honored and loved the game of baseball. He wore his German heritage proudly on his back. Many talented players with immigrant backgrounds have followed and excelled in the path he forged. The Fourth of July is a perfect time to remember Gehrig and the huge influence he has had on his modern day counterparts. He was the epitome of the hard-working average Joe who made it big on guts and grit. These traits were so ingrained in him that he made the difficult decision to retire because he could no longer live up to the strict standards he set for himself. When his health deteriorated to the point that he couldn’t perform, The Iron Horse put himself out to pasture. Can you imagine how heartbreaking that was for him? He could have tried to keep going but he sacrificed his own record so that a more able-bodied replacement could be utilized. The mayor of New York City appointed him to the Parole Board but he eventually had to take a leave of absence and was never able to return. America suffered with him through the remaining pain-filled days of his life.
I never knew Lou Gehrig but I sure know of him. May his indomitable spirit remain an everlasting beacon from the past, a spark of comparison in the present and a ray of hope for the future in this great game we call baseball.
Happy Fourth of July Cubs fans! And God bless the Yankee who wore the same number.
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