He was the son of German immigrants.
Born Henry Louis Gehrig in New York City on June 19, 1903, the future sports icon was the son of German immigrants. His father and mother each arrived in America as young adults then met and married in New York City. Gehrig, the only one of his parents’ four offspring to survive past infancy, spent his early childhood in a heavily German neighborhood in Manhattan called Yorkville and spoke German with his family. Money was tight in the household: Gehrig’s father found periodic employment as a metal worker, while his mother brought in money as a cook and cleaning lady. Gehrig’s mother was a dominant force in his life, and even after becoming a star Yankee he lived with his parents until shortly before his marriage at age 30.
His big break allegedly resulted from a team member’s headache.
In 1923, Gehrig, then a sophomore at Columbia University, where he played football and baseball, dropped out of school after being recruited by the New York Yankees. The team ended up sending him to play in the minor leagues, in Hartford, Connecticut, for part of the 1923 and 1924 seasons, but Gehrig got his big break in 1925. As the story goes, the Yankees’ longtime starting first baseman, Wally Pipp, arrived at the stadium on June 2 and requested some aspirin for a headache. The manager told Pipp to take the day off and put Gehrig in the lineup—where he remained for 2,130 consecutive games. However, this version of events is a myth, according to “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig” by Jonathan Eig, who states that the manager kept Pipp and several other veteran players out of the game that day because they hadn’t been playing well. A month later, Pipp got hit in the head by a ball during practice, spent a week in the hospital and saw limited playing time the remainder of the year. Eig notes the headache tale’s origins might be linked to this injury, and says that in the ensuing years Pipp frequently repeated the story in interviews “making it sound as if he might still be in the starting lineup if not for the aspirin.”
He was the first athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties.
In 1933, Gehrig wed Eleanor Twitchell, a Chicago woman he’d met at a party when the Yankees were playing in the Windy City. While Gehrig was modest and didn’t seek the spotlight, Eleanor was ambitious for her new husband and hired Babe Ruth’s business manager to promote Gehrig. Among other endorsements, he went on to appear on a box of Wheaties cereal—the first athlete to do so—in 1934. The maker of a rival cereal, Huskies, later paid Gehrig to terminate his deal with Wheaties and shill for its brand instead. In an incident that generated headlines across the country, when the star baseball player was a guest on a popular radio show and was asked by the host what he ate for breakfast, he accidentally replied “Wheaties.” Gehrig was embarrassed by his screw up and offered to give the Huskies manufacturer its money back. However, thrilled with the publicity it had received, the company said no. Gehrig later made another appearance on the radio program and when asked again what cereal he liked he recovered by stating, “My favorite is Huskies, and I’ve tried them all.”
The illness that killed him commonly carries his name in the U.S.
1938 was a frustrating season for Gehrig, who didn’t play as well as he had in the past. No one knew it at the time, but he likely was showing signs of the incurable disease that eventually would kill him. In the spring of 1939, his performance continued to deteriorate and he was clumsy and weak. On May 2, 1939, Gehrig told his manager he wanted to sit out that day’s game for the sake of the team, thus ending his record-setting streak of 2,130 games in a row. (The record wasn’t broken until September 6, 1995, by Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles. Ripken’s streak came to an end in 1998 with 2,632 consecutive games, a record that remains in place today.)
Gehrig said he thought he’d be out for a few games; however, when the legendary slugger tried to play again, on June 12, he committed several errors and took himself out of the game. It was the conclusion of Gehrig’s playing career. Soon afterward, he visited the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where doctors diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). First identified in 1869 by a French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and makes the body to systematically shut down. At any given time, approximately 20,000 Americans can be afflicted with the fatal illness, whose cause is unknown, according to the ALS Association.
There’s no exact record of what Gehrig said in his “luckiest man” speech.
A few weeks after Gehrig’s athletic career came to an end, the team for whom he’d played 14 consecutive seasons honored him with a ceremony at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. During the event, which was witnessed by some 61,000 fans at the ballpark, Gehrig gave a short, inspiring speech in which he thanked the people who’d been important to him and said that although he’d had a “bad break,” he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” In “The Pride of the Yankees,” a 1942 movie about the baseball icon’s life, actor Gary Cooper, as Gehrig, delivered the famous speech. However, the filmmakers took liberties with Gehrig’s address because no complete record of it exists. Eleanor Gehrig later said the real speech was so moving that journalists were distracted from recording it word for word; today’s accepted version was pieced together from various news accounts.
Gehrig’s relationship with Babe Ruth soured.
Ruth joined the Yankees in 1920, five years before Gehrig became a starting member of the lineup, and the two great sluggers played together until Ruth hung up his New York uniform in 1934. While the two were teammates, the Yankees won the World Series in 1927, 1928 and 1932 (they also triumphed in 1923, the year Gehrig signed with the team). Personality-wise, the two star players, who batted third (Ruth) and fourth (Gehrig) in the lineup, were polar opposites. Ruth, the oldest of the pair by eight years, was larger than life and loved carousing, while Gehrig was quiet and straitlaced. Gehrig initially respected and got along with his teammate. Outside of the ballpark the two went fishing and golfing and Ruth enjoyed visiting Gehrig’s home for his mother’s cooking. Over time, though, the relationship between the teammates grew strained for a variety of reasons, including Ruth’s criticisms of several Yankee managers whom Gehrig respected, as well as an incident in which Ruth complained to Gehrig about something the younger man’s mother had said. Then, after the 1934 season, Gehrig and Ruth accompanied a group of players on a trip to Japan to play baseball. During the voyage, Gehrig became upset one day when he discovered his wife drinking and socializing with Ruth and his wife in their cabin. Gehrig’s relationship with the Bambino never fully recovered, although Ruth gave a short speech at the July 1939 retirement ceremony honoring Gehrig at Yankee Stadium and was famously photographed hugging him.
He was the first Major League Baseball player to have his number retired by a team.
On December 7, 1939, Gehrig was nominated to the Baseball Hall of Fame, marking the first time a player had been honored this way the same year he left the sport. In another first earlier that same year, the Yankees announced that Gehrig’s No. 4 jersey would be retired, something no other professional team had done before. Gehrig wore No. 4 because as a starting player he was fourth in the batting order. To date, the Yankees have retired 21 numbers.
After his baseball career ended, he worked with prison inmates.
After retiring from baseball, Gehrig accepted an offer from the mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, to be a commissioner on the city’s parole board. The former slugger was sworn in for a 10-year term in the fall of 1939. The job, which had an annual salary of $5,700, included interacting with inmates and determining which ones should be released from prison. Gehrig took his responsibilities seriously but in April 1941 his declining health caused him to ask for a six-month leave of absence. He died two months later.