Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Not many Indians know of Lou Gehrig. Probably those who have followed the life of Stephen 'Black Hole' Hawking might have heard the name probably in a different context. If one remembers Hawking has been struck with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) or motor neurone disease. This is also called as Gehrig's Disease. That's what had this name in the back of my mind.

It was when reading something about Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth that I happened to chance upon the name of Gehrig and to my surprise I learnt that he played baseball. In fact Gehrig held the record for the most number of consecutive games played till Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it in 1995. Gehrig's consecutive game streak of 2,130 games did not come easily. He played well every day despite a broken thumb, a broken toe and back spasms. Later in his career Gehrig's hands were X-rayed, and doctors were able to spot 17 different fractures that had "healed" while Gehrig continued to play. His endurance and strength earned him the nickname "Iron Horse."

Gehrig was born on June 19, 1903 in New York City. The son of German immigrants, Gehrig was the only one of four children to survive. His mother, Christina, worked tirelessly, cooking, cleaning houses and taking in laundry to make ends meet. His father, Heinrich, often had trouble finding work and had poor health. In 1921 he went to Columbia on a football scholarship to pursue a degree in engineering. Before his first semester began, New York Giants manager John McGraw advised him to play summer professional baseball under an assumed name, Henry Lewis, in a different college - Hartford. "Everyone does it," McGraw explained, even though the illegal ball playing could have jeopardized Gehrig's collegiate sports career. Gehrig was discovered after playing a dozen games for Hartford in the Eastern League. As a result, he was banned from intercollegiate sports during his freshman year.

Yankee manager Miller Huggins petitioned McGraw to permit Gehrig to replace the ailing Wally Pipp on the Yanks' roster for the World Series. McGraw, always looking for an edge, exercised his prerogative and refused. The Yankees won the World Series that year anyway. After a full season at Hartford, became a Yankee for good in 1925. Once he replaced Wally Pipp at first base, Gehrig didn't leave the playing field for over 13 years.

Ruth and Gehrig dominated baseball in 1927 in a way two players had never done before. Ruth hit 60 home runs (breaking his own record of 59) and Gehrig hit 47, the second best. In that season Ruth not being eligible for the MVP as he had won o before, it went to Gehrig. By 1932 Ruth's dominance was slipping and Lou stepped right into his shoes. On June 3, 1932, Gehrig became the fist American Leaguer to hit four home runs in a game.

During an off season trip to Japan, the two stars had a massive fight apparently about some comment that Gehrig's mother made about how Ruth's daughter dressed. After that they didn't talk for 6 years. Though being in New York and playing for the Yankees, Gehrig was never much in the news as Ruth eclipsed him. It was though that after the exit of Ruth, Lou would be in the limelight, but then came the talismanic Joe DiMaggio. These two hit a combination like Babe and Gehrig had done some time ago and the Yankees won 4 consecutive World Series.

On May 2 1939 the game announcer intoned, "Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Gehrig's consecutive streak of 2,130 games played has ended. He was diagnosed with ALS and realized that he couldn't play baseball ever .Gehrig was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame that December. On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig succumbed to ALS and baseball lost a great player. Gehrig was cremated and his ashes were buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. Actor Edward Hermann was hired to play Gehrig in a TV movie later. He is best described by saying that he was the ever popular, ever smiling superhero. He was somewhere in between the average and the extra-ordinary. He was as they say - "The Iron Horse'.

Lou Gehrig might not be known to Indians as we rarely follow baseball. However he has become immortal the world over unfortunately because of that fateful disease, which carries his name. He was that that kind of person had he lived in another age that babe Ruth and DiMaggio, would have become a superstar and to some extent he was. His personality can best be rounded of by this affable quote on being asked about playing in Ruth's shadow

"It's a pretty big shadow. It gives me lots of room to spread myself."

for more info see : lougehrig.com

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