Lou Gehrig, baseball's "Iron Horse," dies at 37 (6-2-41)

The Pittsburgh Press (June 3, 1941)



New York, June 3 (UP) –
Lou Gehrig, baseball’s all-time “iron man”, is dead.

A rare disease, which caused hardening of the spinal cord, ended his sports career two years ago after he had played in 2,130 consecutive games, and ended his life at 10:10 last night. He would have been 38 on June 19.

The disease from which he suffered was considered incurable. It forced him to end a 15-year-career to baseball. Two months ago, it forced him to stop going to his office to do his job as a member of the New York Municipal Parole Commission. He was confined to his bed two weeks, wasting away from the disease.

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Gehrig’s place secure among immortals

By Chester L. Smith, sports editor

Not since the tragic death of Ray Chapman 21 years ago, when the Cleveland shortstop was “killed in action” by Carl Mays’ submarine ball, has baseball – and sports – suffered a shock comparable with that of the passing of the one-time “Iron Horse,” Lou Gehrig. Idol of millions of fans; tower of strength as he helped make the almost fabled Yankees the dominating factor in baseball; hero to schoolboys and graybeards; successor to the incomparable Babe Ruth as the greatest home run hitter of his time, the smiling schoolboy from Columbia University earned for himself an enviable niche among the super greats of baseball.

That day two years ago when he limped off the field, a victim of a dread disease, which gradually sapped at his vitals, few knew that Gehrig’s number was up. With his indomitable spirit, he had gone on in the face of what only he himself must have known. Through 2,130 games, from the prime of virile manhood to one aged before his time, Gehrig played, not to enhance a record which hardly needed embellishment, but because he loved baseball, because he retained the amateur spirit, despite the fact that he was one of the highest-priced players in the game’s history.

Like a Trojan he accepted his inevitable fate, never losing his ability to smile, although he must have spent tortuous hours in the privacy of his home as he felt those once-sinewy legs, his once-strong body fall under the spell of a disease which has baffled science. No greater example of courage has even been manifest in sports; no grander character has ever been a part of the great American game. Today, throughout the breadth of the nation, those who love sportsmanship, those, who although they never saw him, knew of him, will consider his passing a personal loss.

In the sometimes sordid doings of sports, things happen which cause one to hesitate in, perhaps lose, his feeling for a sport played by professionals for money and glory. With Gehrig, such things were not possible. Always willing, even in the days when he must have realized that his athletic days were no more, he turned to lending a helping hand to New York’s unfortunate children – because he liked to help anyone get a break like he always claimed he had received. His wholesome spirit, unlimited generosity and happy faculty for always doing the right thing, made him akin to a national hero.

Strictly on his merits on a ballplayer, Gehrig rates with, or above, the greats of current and ancient times.

As a hitter, with his batting average of .340 over 15 years, during which he became the successor to the great Babe Ruth, Gehrig had no need to take a back seat to the Wagners, Cobbs, Speakers, Ruths, Terrys and others whose records have been emblazoned on baseball’s archives. It must have been with premonition that his place among the immortals of the game was made secure when, two years ago, he was placed in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., alongside Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Grover Alexander, Cy Young, Nap Lajoie and Eddie Collins, who complemented the selection of Wagner, Cobb, Speaker and Willie Keeler.

As a team-player, his value was immeasurable. After Ruth had seen better days, Gehrig became the potent punch of the Yanks, making fandom realize the important part he must have played when the Bronx Bombers rose to the unparalleled heights, first under the late Miller Huggins and later as Smiling Joe McCarthy used them to crush all opposition. Through 14 years, Columbia Lou never missed a Major League game; through that long stretch, he took the good breaks with the bad, and he climaxed it on May 2, 1939, when, others having believed the “Iron Horse” had finally grown rusty, he confided to McCarthy that he “had better take a rest until I find out what’s wrong with me.” Only then did McCarthy acquiesce to the wish, never realizing as Gehrig walked off the field that he had played his last ball game.

Sports always will be indebted to Gehrig. Admitting that he took a lot out of it, he put in more than he took. For his exemplary play; his courage, his affable nature unchanged by his misfortune; his forthright example to the youth of the nation who like baseball, Gehrig should ever remain an idol. Never once in his career did he do anything but the right thing. And that is a lot to say of anyone in professional sport, where sometimes the lust to win overpowers the spirit of fair play.

The “Iron Horse” has gone, but baseball is better for having had him.

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Body to lie in state for two hours tonight

New York, June 3 (UP) –
The body of Lou Gehrig will lie in state for two hours tonight so that friends and admirers of the former New York Yankees first baseman may pay a final tribute to baseball’s “iron man.”

This concession was made today by Mrs. Gehrig, who at first had announced a preference that the ceremonies be private, and that all funeral arrangements be completed as quietly as possible.

The body will be in state from 8 to 10 p.m. in Christ Church, Riverdale.

Funeral service for the man who played 2,130 consecutive Major League Baeball games will be held at 10 a.m. EDT tomorrow. They will be private. The body will be cremated at Fresh Pond crematory in Middle Village, Long Island.

McCarthy, Dickey leave team

Joe McCarthy, the manager of the Yankees, will leave the team in Detroit tonight to fly here for the funeral. He will confer with Ed Barrow, the president of the Yankees, regarding a proper tribute to be paid by the ball club. William Harridge, the president of the American League, will fly here from Chicago to attend.

An unbroken stream of friends filed into the Gehrig home today to express condolences to the family.

Gehrig’s body lay on a couch in an alcove of a Manhattan funeral parlor.

Early today, Patrick McDonald, a New York City fireman attached to the Fireboat John J. Harvey, went to the funeral parlor.

Only a caretaker was no duty. He did not know that Gehrig’s body lay inside.

But McDonald – who had not known Gehrig personally – was permitted to view the body.

I was supposed to start my vacation today, but I had to have one last look at my favorite ball player.

Gehrig’s face, he said, held a quiet smile. A few gray hairs were visible at his temples.

Flags at half-mast

Flags of New York City buildings flew at half-mast today. Gehrig, as a member of the Municipal Parole Commission, had been a city employee since Oct. 9, 1939, when Mayor F. H. LaGuardia appointed him.

The honorary pallbearers will be:

  • Mayor LaGuardia;
  • Parole Commissioners John Maher and Mary Fraschi McCarthy;
  • Yankees catcher Bill Dickey
  • Four doctors from the Mayo Clinic – Dr. Paul O’Leary, Dr, Henry Woltman, Dr. Bayard Norton and Dr. Harold C. Harbein;
  • Christy Walsh, syndicate writer who handled much of Gehrig’s writing;
  • Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn;
  • John Kieran, sports columnist of _ the New York Times_.

Dickey, who was Gehrig’s roommate when they played together with the Yankees, will fly to New York immediately after today’s game with the Detroit Tigers.

Gehrig, who would have been 38 on June 19, died at 10:10 last night of the rare incurable disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – a hardening of the spinal cord – which had ended his baseball career two years ago after he had played 2,130 consecutive games for the Yankees.

Game’s most durable player

Gehrig was the most durable baseball player in the game’s history. From June 15, 1923 until April 30, 1939, Gehrig never missed a ball game with the Yankees.

Through those 15 years, Gehrig, by sheer grit and an extraordinary constitution, performed one of the miracles of baseball and earned the title of “The Iron Horse.” Of all the men in the baseball world, Gehrig was considered the one least likely to fold up overnight, the victim of an insidious disease which defied medical aid.

But after a week of examinations at Mayo Brothers’ clinic, Rochester, Minn., a shocked baseball world would be informed that Gehrig was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a type of illness known in layman’s terms as chronic poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis). Gehrig was given the sad news June 19, 1939, his 36th birthday.

Gehrig remained with the Yankees the rest of the 1939 season but retired from baseball after the Bronx Bombers won their fourth straight world title. In respect to his long and faithful service to the club, the Yankees retired his “No. 4” and gave the ball player permanent ownership of his locker in the Yankees dressing room.

On Oct. 9, 1939, Mayor F. H. LaGuardia appointed Gehrig to a 10-year term as a member of the three-man Parole Commission. Occasionally, Gehrig would drop in quietly at Yankee Stadium and sit on the Yankees bench in civilian clothes.

More than once during his fabulous career, Gehrig played on his nerve alone. He was felled by wild pitches. He had attacks of lumbago so bad that he was unable to dress himself in his uniform. He had his feet stepped on and cut. His legs and fingers were bruised and bashed. Once, he played for a period with a chipped bone in his little finger.

The nearest Gehrig ever came to breaking his consecutive game string before the final exit was at Detroit in 1934. He had the lumbago so bad he couldn’t rise out of bed.

Gehrig said in recalling the incident:

I had to fall out of bed to get up. I called the club trainer, Dr. Painter, and he had to dress me to get to the park. Then he had to undress me and help me get into my baseball togs, listed as shortstop. I singled and then retired to nurse my aching back.

Once in Washington, a doctor ordered Gehrig out of the game after he was hit in the head by a pitched ball thrown by Earl Whitehill, but the Yankees first baseman refused to obey. He played on and hit a homer that won the game.

Native New Yorker

A native New Yorker, Gehrig was born of German immigrants in a tenement in lower Harlem on June 19, 1903. When he was four, Gehrig’s family moved to Washington Heights where there was more room and fresh air for the youngster. It was on the lots in that neighborhood that he learned to play ball. He attended the high school of commerce, but didn’t make the baseball team until his second year. He first attracted the attention of baseball scouts when he hit a home run over the right-field wall at Wrigley Field, Chicago, in the annual inter-city high school game between the champions of New York and Chicago.

Gehrig attended Columbia and starred at football as well as baseball. While at Columbia, he tried out with the Giants at the Polo Grounds but John J. McGraw did not pay a lot of attention to him. McGraw sent Gehrig to Hartford where he played under the name of Lewis but he became homesick and jumped the club.

In 1923, the Yankees signed Gehrig, giving him $3,500. Eight other clubs, including the Giants, had been after Gehrig to sign a contract but the Yankees proposition made up his mind for him.

Gehrig said:

My mother had double pneumonia and my dad hadn’t worked in six months. I took the money so fast Ed Barrow didn’t have the chance to change his mind.

Grows restless

Gehrig went South with the Yankees in 1924 and had only $12 in his pocket. For a while, he had a part-time job as a soda-jerker in New Orleans, where the Yankees trained that year, in order to pay his incidental expenses. When Miller Huggins found out about Gehrig’s plight, he arranged for the club to give him extra expense money.

The Yankees sent Gehrig back to Hartford in 1924 because he was promised a bonus of $1,500 if he went back there. He had become popular with the fans in Hartford during his first appearance there. He hit .344 and came back to the Yankees the next spring.

Wally Pipp was playing first base for the Yankees and Gehrig had to sit on the bench. He grew restless and asked Manager Huggins to send him back to the minors.

Huggins counseled him:

Be patient, young man. I have plans for you. Besides, I couldn’t get you out of the league.

On June 1, Gehrig appeared in the Yankees lineup as a pinch-hitter, batting for Pee-Wee Wanninger. Only a few weeks before, Wanninger had replaced Deacon Scott at shortstop, and snapped the veteran infielder record of playing in 1,397 games. The experts predicted at that time that Scott’s record would probably never be broken.

The next day, Pipp came back into the Yankees clubhouse after the infield drill and asked the trainer for some aspirin tablets. He had been bothered by pains in the head as the result of a accident in his youth. Huggins overheard Pipp’s request.

The little manager asked:

Got a headache? Well, take the day off and let this big kid play.

Gehrig’s big chance

To Gehrig, Huggins said:

Now, here’s the chance you’ve been hollering for. Let’s see what you can do.

Gehrig batted No. 6 in the batting order, and made two singles and a double off George Mogridge and Allan Russell of Washington, helping the Yankees win, 8–5. He was a landmark at first base for the Yankees for the next 14 years.

Gehrig broke and equalled many records during his 17 years with the Yankees. His lifetime batting average for 2,130 games was .340. He played in seven World Series and batted .361. He hit 493 home runs during his Major League career, a figure exceeded only by Ruth and Foxx. On 23 occasions, he hit homers with the bases filled. In 1932, he hit four homers in one game. For 13 consecutive years, he batted in 100 or more runs. In 1934, he led the American League in batting with an average of .363. He collected nearly $400,000 in salary and World Series cuts during his Yankee career. His top salary was $36,000 in 1937.

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