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'Luckiest Man'

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page BW02


The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig

By Jonathan Eig. Simon & Schuster. 420 pp. $26

On June 2, 1941, just days short of his 38th birthday, Henry Louis Gehrig died at his house in the pleasant New York City neighborhood of Riverdale. The disease that killed him, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was almost entirely unknown at the time, to the extent, Jonathan Eig writes, that "many doctors in the United States had never heard of ALS." Gehrig, the great first baseman of the New York Yankees -- indeed, commonly conceded to have been the greatest first baseman in baseball history -- changed all that. In the years after his death, ALS became near-universally known as Lou Gehrig's disease, as it is to this day; for all the advances medical science has made in the six decades since Gehrig's death, "his" disease still has no known cure.

On July 4, 1939, two years before his death, a severely weakened Gehrig returned to Yankee Stadium, not long after he had announced his retirement from baseball. The Yankees were determined to hold a day in his honor. Gehrig, who was shy and reserved, dreaded the occasion, but he rose to it. Wearing the Yankees' uniform, he approached the microphones after various tributes had been paid and gifts presented, and stood there in silence. Finally, he spoke. "For the past two weeks you've been reading about a bad break," he told the packed ballpark. "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." He saluted his teammates, his parents, his wife, and then said: "So I close in saying that I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you."

Stars of sport often are called heroes but only rarely live up to the name. Gehrig came about as close as any except Roberto Clemente, the magnificent Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder who was killed in a December 1972 plane crash while flying emergency supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. Gehrig's heroism lay in the stoic courage with which he accepted his disease and the calm good humor with which he lived out his days. He was an exemplar. One of the first books given to me by my parents (who were not baseball fans) was called Lou Gehrig: Boy Hero; the sentiment expressed in its subtitle is still widely felt and was given voice by Cal Ripken Jr. when, in 1995, he broke Gehrig's "unbreakable" record of 2,130 consecutive games and told the crowd at Camden Yards in Baltimore: "Tonight, I stand here, overwhelmed, as my name is linked with the great and courageous Lou Gehrig."

So it is entirely appropriate that, after all these years, Gehrig is the subject of a full biography that treats him not just as a superb athlete but also as an admirable, if far from flawless, human being. Many books have been written about him in the past, including biographies by the (now forgotten but once notable) journalists Frank Graham and Paul Gallico, but they are standard sports-page fare, closer to hagiography than to biography. Eig, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, does better. His prose rarely rises above competence, but his research is thorough, and he pays due attention to Gehrig's few shortcomings as well as his many strengths. Eig's biography doesn't do quite as well by Gehrig as Robert Creamer's Babe did by that other famous Yankee, Babe Ruth, but Luckiest Man is good, solid work.

One important point stressed by Eig but glossed over by most others who have written about Gehrig is that for his entire life he was a mama's boy. His parents, Heinrich and Christina, were poor German immigrants whose life together started in Yorkville, the Upper East Side neighborhood that was then Manhattan's German enclave. Lou was born on June 19, 1903, a bit less than a year after the death of the first Gehrig child, Anna; his sister Sophie was born in July of the next year. Heinrich worked irregularly at best, so it fell to the "muscular, unemotional" Christina to keep the family together and to earn money as a cleaning woman and a cook for the wealthy. To Lou she was a heroine, and to her he was the object of unstinting devotion.

Lou inherited his mother's stocky build and strong legs. "Each thigh was bigger than many a man's waist, each calf the size of a Christmas ham": Strong legs (along with keen eyes) are a hitter's most important asset, and Gehrig's legs were simply awesome. He was too big to be graceful and was susceptible to mental lapses, so when he started playing baseball as a boy, he was sent to first base; that, along with right field, is where bad fielders are hidden. He was an incredibly hard worker, though, and by the time he got to Columbia University he had begun the process of polishing himself into a better-than-average first-baseman when in the field, an asset rather than a liability, a thinking man's ballplayer if not a baseball genius.

Gehrig signed with the Yankees in April 1923 for a total of just under $3,000. To the Gehrigs it was a windfall, "a life-altering payday." Lou continued to live with his parents and immediately became the family breadwinner. Before long he moved his parents out to the suburbs and set them up comfortably if not lavishly, a manner to which they quickly became accustomed. Gehrig spent a brief breaking-in period with the Hartford Senators in Connecticut, where he tore up the league; by the end of the 1923 season he was back in New York, this time for good.

Before one of that season's final games, Wally Pipp, the regular Yankee first baseman, wrenched an ankle, and Gehrig was sent in to play for him. Legend has it that this was when Gehrig's celebrated streak began, but that didn't happen until well into the 1924 season, when Pipp was benched and Gehrig sent in. Pipp never played another inning for the Yankees: "Lou Gehrig and Wally Pipp are forever linked, like the tortoise and the hare. But for all its mythical resonance, the legend does Gehrig a disservice. In truth, he didn't get Pipp's job because the older man had a headache or grew lazy. He got it because he was young and eager and hit the ball twice as hard as the player he replaced. He had an opportunity, and he seized it."

The Yankees of that time were "rough guys," according to one of the many players who passed through the clubhouse: "They were swashbuckling, tobacco-chewing, cursing tough-guys. They were farmers, country boys." They liked Gehrig well enough but didn't understand him. He was "a worrier, obsessed with pleasing others," he "made little effort to get to know his teammates or the reporters who covered the team," he didn't carouse or womanize, he "did not so much set aside his self-doubt as manage it," he "never grumbled and never cried for attention," he was "sensitive and uncommunicative," to "shopkeepers and delivery boys, he was known as a tightwad," he "took comfort working for strict bosses and following precise rules." Gradually he eased up a bit, and when he became famous his insecurity diminished, but to the end he was sensitive, thoughtful, wary.

He was rarely seen with women, but he did open up to one, Mary Loeb, the wife of a respected sportswriter: "He liked women, he told Mary, and he wanted to marry someday. But it was complicated. His mother had already suffered so much. She had lost three children and had worked herself to exhaustion to take care of the family, and without much help from her husband. Gehrig could never repay her, and he could never stand to disappoint her. He loved his mother with a great passion, he said, but he wondered sometimes if that devotion would keep him from ever loving anyone else."

Finally, in 1932, he met Eleanor Grace Twitchell. She seems to have had a good deal more experience of life (and presumably love) than he, and was in danger of becoming "an aging flapper," but he fell for her, and a year later they were married, to his mother's considerable unhappiness. There was "an especially explosive chemistry between these two women" that never went away. Eleanor was not the ideal wife, but Gehrig seems to have figured out how to live happily with her, and she with him, and the marriage grew more and more solid -- especially after 1939, when his ALS was diagnosed. In his time of need she was the wife he needed -- strong, supportive, caring for him without babying him -- and after his death she kept the flame burning. She wrote a popular book about her life with him and "played a powerful role behind the scenes" while the poignant movie about him, "Pride of the Yankees," was written and filmed.

That Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth played on the same team for fully a decade, usually batting one behind the other, is one of the genuinely amazing facts, or oddities, in American sports history. If two other players of comparable stature did the same in baseball or any other sport, they do not come readily to mind. The two men were friendly but never close, fell out for a while -- Eig raises the possibility that the priapic Babe may have fooled around with Eleanor -- but were friends again as Gehrig's end drew near. More than Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson or anyone else, they defined the New York Yankees for the entire nation, and thus played roles in American culture at least as large as those they played on the diamond. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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