IRON HORSE

Lou Gehrig in His Time

By Ray Robinson

Norton. 300 pages. $22.50

Lou Gehrig was a great ballplayer, no doubt about that; his idea of a bad season -- his "worst" came in 1938, when he batted .295, hit 29 home runs and drove in 114 runs -- would qualify him for the All-Star team in 1990, but then it was bad by comparison with the previous season, when he batted .351, hit 37 homers and drove in 159 runs, or -- are you ready for this? -- with 1931, when he batted .341, hit 46 homers and drove in a breathtaking 184 runs.

He was a great ballplayer, all right, but he wasn't a very interesting guy. His New York Yankees teammate and slugging rival Babe Ruth was all the player he was and then some, and into the bargain he was a certifiable character, a roisterer who swaggered his way into American legend and whose life produced the best biography of any American sports figure, Robert Creamer's "Babe." Gehrig's biographers, working with far less promising material, haven't fared so well; Ray Robinson's "Iron Horse" is no exception.

It's been a while -- 35 or 40 years, if you must know -- since I've read a book quite like "Iron Horse." This is sports biography such as we used to read in the late '40s and early '50s, when sports prose was even more labored and cliched than it is now, when even the most tentative psychological inquiry was anathema, when the dutiful recitation of play-by-play and the recollection of a few stilted anecdotes were as close as the authors ever came to characterization. Essentially they were books for boys, though more than a few superannuated teenagers read them because they were the only sports reading available.

Now that's changed. Most sports prose is still dreadful, but it's acquired an insouciant wit unknown to readers of a generation ago; there are even a few sports books that actually can claim a degree of journalistic distinction. But Ray Robinson seems to have gotten himself caught in a time warp. His "Iron Horse" tells us nothing we didn't know about Lou Gehrig -- though, to be sure, it reminds us of a few things we'd forgotten -- and it does so in a singularly grating, anachronistic fashion.

By subtitling his book "Lou Gehrig in His Time," Robinson gives himself license to practice amateur history in capsule such as long ago went out of style, if not entirely out of practice. Thus we have a book littered with startling non sequiturs such as: "On the mid-May afternoon that Charles Lindbergh flew alone across the Atlantic to Paris in his Spirit of St. Louis, the Yankees dropped a game to Cleveland, a loss almost as rare that year as Lindbergh's own passage," or "When another more inglorious Ruth of '27 -- Ruth Snyder, the frosty-eyed blond -- was sentenced to death on Friday, May 13, for the brutal murder of her art editor husband, the Babe and Lou were in the second month of their home-run competition."

To be sure this is amusing, but somehow it's doubtful that Robinson intended it to be. "Iron Horse" has much the same stolid, plodding earnestness as, oh, Bill Roeder's "Jackie Robinson," which I read 40 years ago almost to the day and which was just right for a 10-year-old boy. If 10-year-olds still read books, admittedly a doubtful proposition, then "Iron Horse" will be right down their alley. It tells all the famous stories about Larrupin' Lou, as press box poets of the day liked to call Gehrig, and it does precious little to tarnish the unearthly glow of Gehrig's saintly reputation.

Yes, Robinson does allow as how Gehrig was something of a tightwad, and he quotes one teammate as calling him "remote and inward-looking" as well as "gruff and unfriendly," but those are pretty tiny warts for a hero who otherwise emerges as self-effacing and loyal and generous to little boys, one of whom was the 11-year-old Ray Robinson.

That being how Robinson remembers Gehrig, it's understandable that even as an adult he should have affectionate memories of his boyhood "Quiet Hero," which sobriquet in good press box style he calls a "fitting appellation." Still, it makes for a biography that's longer on hagiography than independent inquiry. Which, come to think of it, may be just what Gehrig or almost any other athlete deserves: a book for boys, though its price tag of $22.50 may put a major strain on their allowances.