Lou Gehrig was an iconic athlete, a Hall of Fame first baseman, and one of the most famous baseball players of all time.
Before his tragic death from ALS, Gehrig racked up an impressive set of stats while setting the record for consecutive games played, and he was an integral part of a powerhouse New York Yankee team that was considered unstoppable.
Despite all that, there is much about Gehrig that remains unknown, even to hard-core fans. He was a shy, modest man who never really fit the hard-drinking, outgoing model of a professional ballplayer, and his on-the-field achievements were often overshadowed by the legendary Babe Ruth.
Thankfully, a fine book about Gehrig called “The Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig” by Jonathan Eig is full of intriguing details about Gehrig. Here are a few of the best ones.
The Iron Horse
Sportswriters were famous for coming up with colorful nicknames for players during the era in which Gehrig played, but Gehrig’s reticent nature made it tough to come up with a nickname that would stick.
The one that finally did was brilliant. After being described as one of New York’s “prize locomotives,” he was dubbed “the Iron Horse” for his ability to push and pull the Yankees to one victory after another. Given that baseball teams traveled by train during that era, the nickname couldn’t have been more fitting.
The Iron Horse vs The Babe
Gehrig and Babe Ruth lived very different lives that were dictated by their opposite personalities, but there was one noteworthy incident that defined their differences.
According to Yankee catcher Bill Dickey, the Yankees were on a cruise ship to Japan to do a barnstorming tour when Gehrig couldn’t find his wife, Eleanor, who was as devoted to her husband as he was to living a quiet life.
When she was finally discovered in Ruth’s cabin having a small caviar and champagne party with the Babe, a rift was opened between Ruth and Gehrig, despite the fact that there was no visible evidence that the Babe and Eleanor were involved.
The relationship between the two men was never the same, and Gehrig responded to some derisive comments Ruth made about him by telling a newspaperman that Honus Wagner was the greatest player he ever saw.
Tarzan the Iron Horse?
Tarzan was one of the iconic movies of Gehrig’s era, and when the studio needed a replacement for lead actor Johnny Weissmuller, who was under contract to a different studio, Gehrig’s agent convinced him to put his rugged good looks to good use and take a shot at movie stardom.
So Gehrig proceeded to don a loin cloth and swing a fake wooden club on screen, but he was rejected for the role because his thighs were considered too bulky and muscular to be attractive on the silver screen. (Clearly, he was born at least a generation too early.)
Gehrig did make a western called “Rawhide” in which he played himself, but the film got only average reviews. Despite the commercial failure, Gehrig said he had a fine time riding horses and shooting fake guns, so at least the venture wasn’t a total loss.
The Ouija Board Incident
Baseball is full of strange and wonderful stories that likely seem apocryphal, but one of the weirdest started when a sportswriter convinced Gehrig’s wife that she had psychic powers.
A ouija board quickly entered the picture, and when a spirit was called up, the message “YOU WILL SOON BE CALLED UPON TO FACE THE MOST DIFFICULT PROBLEM OF YOUR LIFE.”
Eleanor thought the message might be about about the fact that she and Gehrig were considering adopting a child, but reply to that question was “NO” and the message ultimately proved ominous in a completely different way.
Gehrig and his wife left for spring training a few weeks later, and the first baseman’s career came to a sudden and tragic end when he was diagnosed with ALS, which would rob him of his skills and eventually take his life.
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