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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Gehrig and Ruth on the Rocks: Legendary Understandings

"...the words, 'Dahlgren, first base,' stunned the crowd into a moment of unplanned silence, which was followed by the unprecedented sound of several thousand people sighing in unison. Then Gehrig trudged up to the plate, carrying the lineup card without his name on it. It was one of the most moving moments in sports history, high drama of the sort you cannot make up." 

--Art Hill from I Don't Care If I Never Come Back

July 4, 2014 was the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's memorable farewell to baseball speech. When Gehrig gave his speech long ago, it was the first time many of the people in the ballpark heard him speak. The honoree had to be coaxed to the microphone by manager Joe McCarthy. To say Lou was a humble man is a gross understatement.

Major League Baseball held a wonderful remembrance honoring Gehrig and supporting research to find a cure for ALS. As I recalled reading the biography of Gehrig as a young man, I was drawn to the web to refresh my memories about his life.

Lou Gehrig was an amazing baseball player and a remarkable man who died much too early. Today, I want to add a little chapter of his life to the blog. I do this with the utmost respect for the man. I am passing along some information that I found very interesting, even though it may be a little regrettable. In no way do I intend to discredit Gehrig. Perhaps, there is a lesson for us all in recalling these Golden Days of Baseball.

The Man

Henry Louis (Lou) Gehrig was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan in New York City, on June 19, 1903. From day one, he was a memorable character: It is reported Lou weighed almost 14 pounds at birth. His parents, Heinrich and Christina Gehrig, were German immigrants who'd moved to their new country just a few years before.

Lou was the only one of four Gehrig children to survive infancy. His two sister died from whooping cough and measles at an early age, and a brother also died in infancy.

Gehrig faced a childhood shaped by poverty. His father struggled to stay sober and keep a job, while Christina, his mother who was a strong woman intent on creating a better life for her son, worked constantly, cleaning houses and cooking meals for wealthy New Yorkers. She was both the breadwinner and the disciplinarian of the family.

A devoted parent, Christina pushed hard for her son to get a good education and supported her son's many athletic pursuits. From an early age, Gehrig showed himself to be a gifted athlete, excelling in both football and baseball.

The Gehrigs moved to Washington Heights, at the northern tip of Manhattan, a jumping-off point from which young Lou would swim across the Hudson to New Jersey. When Lou was a young boy, he loved to play baseball, football, and soccer with his neighborhood buddies in empty corner lots. By the time he got to Commerce High, he was already a legend in his neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Christina Gehrig became the cook for a fraternity house at nearby Columbia University.

After graduating from high school, Gehrig enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied engineering and played fullback on the football team. Lou often went to the fraternity house to help Christina serve dinner and wash dishes afterward. He also worked part-time jobs in butcher shops and grocery stores to help supplement the household income.

However, before his first semester began, under the influence of New York Giants manager John McGraw, Gehrig was advised to play on a summer professional baseball team under a false name, "Henry Lewis," despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility.

After only a dozen games played for the Hartford Senators in the Eastern League, he was discovered, and then banned from collegiate sports his freshman year. During the 1922 season, his sophomore year at Columbia, he was allowed to participate in sports again. Later, in 1923, he would play first base and pitch for Columbia.

But it was Gehrig's bat that appealed to the New York Yankees, who in April 1923, the same year Yankee Stadium first opened, signed Gehrig to his first professional contract. The deal included a $1,500 signing bonus, a fantastic sum for Gehrig and his family, which allowed him to move his parents to the suburbs, fund an operation required by his ailing mother, and, more important, play baseball full-time.

Gehrig left Columbia and returned to the Hartford team, where he hit .304 that season. After a full season at Hartford, where Gehrig hit .369, he became a Yankee for good in September, 1925. Once he replaced Wally Pipp at first base, he hit .423 in 26 at-bats. Gehrig didn't leave the playing field for over 13 years. 

After the 1927 season, when Gehrig hit .373 with 47 home runs and 173 RBIs, the Yankees raised his salary from $8,000 a year to $25,000, so he bought his parents a home in New Rochelle, north along the train line in Westchester County. He called it "the proudest moment of my life," and that's where he lived until he met Eleanor Twitchell, a flapper type from Chicago who cut the formidable Ma Gehrig's apron strings.

The rest of the Lou Gehrig story is well-known Major League baseball history. Sportswriter Jim Murray once described the tall, strong Gehrig as a "Gibraltar in cleats." He was a dedicated athlete, a caring son and husband, an honest man, and an American hero. 

For his entire life of 37 years, Lou never strayed far from Manhattan or The Bronx. He was a very devoted person -- both to his environment and to his family.

But one question lingers today among his legion of admirers, which includes a surprising number of young people searching for heroes. These fans are eager to learn about Gehrig's true relationship  with his Yankee brother-in-arms, Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat. I believe this is where some light can be shed upon the two and their true friendship.

Gehrig and Ruth

Gehrig was originally one of those who sat at the feet of the great Bambino and adored his every move. In fact, Gehrig once thought that the most thrilling moment in his career was shaking Ruth's hand as he crossed the plate after hitting number 60 (and setting the record for most homeruns in a season) in 1927.

Gehrig was also said to have "a lack of jealousy toward Babe Ruth. Here is a great account of the immortal "called shot" homerun by the Babe:

"This check in ego allowed many things Ruth got attention for, even when they weren't as important as what Gehrig had done, slide out of Gehrig's conscious. For instance, in the 1932 World Series, Gehrig out-homered Ruth. But hardly anyone remembers that. What they do remember is Ruth supposedly 'calling his shot.'

"Gehrig was on deck during Ruth's controversial at-bat. A 35mm home video of the incident clearly shows Ruth pointing, but it's unclear to what or whom he was pointing. The myth is he pointed to the centerfield bleachers, where he happened to send the next pitch. The reality was Ruth and pitcher, Cubs' Charlie Root, were throwing words at each other, as both teams had been doing all day. Ruth was pointing at Root, not the bleachers. Gehrig told the press, 'Babe was jawing with Root and what he said was, 'I'm going to knock the next pitch right down your god-damned throat.'

"Root's catcher, Gabby Harnett, denied Ruth called his shot as well. According to him, Ruth held up two fingers to indicate that he had two strikes on him, then yelled at Root, "It only takes one to hit!"

"In the end, Gehrig had out-performed Ruth, but Ruth still got all the attention. As his nature demanded, though, Gehrig laughed the whole thing off, calling Ruth 'that big monkey.'"

("Relationship With Babe."

Yet, their lifestyles and manners were so different that, as time went on, Gehrig and Ruth had some major disagreements. By all accounts, Ruth was an outrageously undisciplined man in every facet of his life except home-run hitting, while the modest, insecure Gehrig was never much taken with flamboyance or empty boasting. Ruth craved the spotlight while Gehrig preferring privacy.

But Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth were very cordial and even forged a great friendship off the field.

During the beginning of their friendship, Babe and Lou often went on fishing and hunting trips together, and they would attend many college football games with each other. The two families (the Ruths and the Gehrigs) would sometimes go on cruises together.

Granted, there was tension in their relationship at times, but some say opposites have a strange attraction. And sportswriters of that day emphasized that Gehrig seemed content to live in Ruth's substantial shadow.

Yet, as time went on, Gehrig increasingly objected to Ruth's public declamations against Yankee Manager Joe McCarthy, a man Gehrig almost revered as a second father. To Gehrig, such loose talk was just not permissible.

(Ray Robinson. "Ruth and Gehrig: Forced Smiles." The New York Times. June 2, 1991)

Ruth was a frequent visitor at the Gehrig household for evening dinners when Lou’s mom, Christina, was “chief cook” to the hungry Yankees. She and Babe struck up a good relationship. Ruth even gave Christina a chihuahua which she named "Jidge," a German-accent twist on "George," Ruth's real name. There, in the Gehrig house, the children of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig often played together.

Until ...

(First, here is where some background may be essential to understanding the rest of the story.)

Well ... Babe Ruth had two daughters, one of them, Dorothy, was adopted by Ruth and his first wife Helen. After Helen died in a fire, Ruth married Claire Hodgson and adopted her daughter Julia. 

Decades later, Dorothy wrote a book, My Dad, The Babe, claiming that she was Ruth's biological child by a woman named Juanita Jennings, and Helen was not her biological mother. Ruth fathered her via an affair he had with the other woman.

The two Ruth daughters had different personalities. Daughter Dorothy was a tomboy, while Julia was more of a "proper" young lady.

Then, one day ...

Sources say, Ruth and wife Claire took a trip, leaving  Dorothy home with the maid. And, evidently, Dorothy visited the Gehrig household in New Rochelle during the trip to hang out, as she often did.

Where ... it gets a little cloudy here ... either one, two, or all occurred ...

* Lou’s mom commented about Dorothy being neglected (being left in a big house with a maid).

* Lou's mom said Dorothy was dressed rather shabbily for a child of the “Crown Prince” of baseball. Christina thought Dorothy was dressed like a shabby tomboy. In the eyes of Mrs. Gehrig, who was domineering and opinionated, this was an insult.
* Lou's mom made this snide comment about how it's too bad Claire didn't dress Dorothy (her adopted daughter) as well as she did "her own daughter" (Julia).

And, naturally ... 

The story goes when Claire came to pick up Dorothy, Mom Gehrig tore into her. Claire, in turn, told Ruth that Mom Christina was nosing in. Then, Ruth told Gehrig that Mom needed to "mind her own goddamned business." 

But you didn't knock Mom Gehrig to Lou, and when Babe did that, it was the end of their friendship. Fiercely attached to his mother, Gehrig could never tolerate such a crude verbal assault on his mother's integrity.

Lou got ticked at Babe, and the two stopped speaking to each other from that point. The following spring training became a Hatfield and McCoy-like environment. As a result, Babe and Lou rarely spoke to each other off the field. They shook hands at home plate in the traditional ritual after home runs and managed to be accommodating when photographers asked them to pose together. But Lou was forced to play-act his familiar grin in the presence of Ruth.

(Robert Creamer. Babe: The Legend Comes To Life. April 15, 1992)

Ray Robinson reported:

"The last straw came when Ruth spoke disparagingly of Gehrig's cherished consecutive game streak. He said he regarded it as little more than a boring statistic. 'This Iron Horse stuff is just a lot of baloney,' Ruth growled. 'I think he's making one of the worst mistakes a player can make. He ought to learn to sit on the bench and rest. They're not going to pay off on how many games he's played in a row.'"

(Ray Robinson. "Ruth and Gehrig: Forced Smiles." The New York Times. June 2, 1991)

The feud continued until this reported first attempt at conciliation during a cruise to Japan in 1934:

 "Mrs. Eleanor Gehrig, Lou's wife, was walking the deck alone when she came upon Claire Ruth sitting in a deck chair. After a spontaneous “hello,” she continued walking. On her way back Mrs. Ruth invited Gehrig back to their cabin. So there was Eleanor Gehrig stepping into the “enemy camp” without Lou…"missing” for two hours. 

"When Christina finally stepped back out onto the deck, Eleanor found Lou and most of the crew in a stem to stern search preparing to blow the ships horn to signal a circling hunt for a person overboard! The one place Lou never thought to check was Ruth’s cabin… 

"Wife Christina was now treated to Lou’s stubborn silent treatment and while dressing for dinner there was a heavy handed banging at the door followed by the Bambino bursting in, arms outstretched with a 'let's be pals' look on his face. The unforgiving Lou turned his back, extending his silence to Ruth. The Babe, openly disappointed retreated." 

Gehrig and Ruth never reconciled and the subject was dropped in the Gehrig household forever.

Until ...

That memorable day. July 4, 1939, was designated at Lou Gehrig Day. The Stadium was packed with 61,000 fans as members of the '27 Yankees and his current teammates fanned out in the infield. Lou Gehrig was facing his own death sentence.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis --  ALS, an invidious, progressive disease that attacks the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal chord -- had robbed him of his physical abilities.

There was, and is, no cure for ALS. But Gehrig had fought on, at first clinging to a hope that Eleanor and his doctors knew he really didn't have, and then coming to accept the inevitable. His body continued to fail him, but that didn't stop him from working, or from fighting. Later, he sued Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News for writing a column in which he blamed the Yankees' poor 1940 season on the "polio germ" that Gehrig had introduced into the clubhouse.

But, on that day in 1939, the 36-year-old legend addressed the crowd and uttered the immortal statement: "For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

(Steve Wulf. "An Awful Lot To Live For." ESPN. July 4, 2014)

And, on that day, one special celebrity appeared ...

Arriving late, Babe Ruth was there. Ruth threw a big bear hug around a less than enthused Lou. Although he hardly had the strength to reciprocate, Gehrig probably appreciated the gesture more than the plethora of gifts he received that day. For a moment, it appeared that the disaffection between them may have eased. But others think differently.

"They were never friends again," said Bill Dickey, teammate and best friend to Gehrig. "You know that famous picture of Babe hugging Lou when Lou had that retirement ceremony at the stadium in 1939? Well, Babe put his arms around Lou and hugged him but, if you look close, Lou never put his arm around the Babe. Lou just never forgave him."

("Relationship With Babe."

Lou Gehrig died on the evening of June 2, 1941, with his wife and parents by his bedside.

Mr. and Mrs. Babe Ruth arrived at the Gehrig residence at one A.M. Babe expressed his deep regrets and sympathy.

Yet, Ray Robinson said...

"But in the last two years of Lou's life, Ruth paid little heed to his dying ex-teammate. When Lou's body was being viewed in the Bronx at a Riverdale funeral parlor, Ruth finally did show up, but his unruly behavior only served to underline what had previously gone wrong between them.

"Lou's father and mother were there when we came to the house," wrote songwriter Fred Fisher, a good friend of the Gehrigs, to a doctor who had cared for Lou during his last fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

"There were a lot of friends there, too. Eleanor was very composed, having been prepared for the shock. But she became very angry when Ruth and his wife came in very intoxicated. He certainly wasn't wanted by the Gehrigs, as there was friction between them for years."

 (Ray Robinson. "Ruth and Gehrig: Forced Smiles." The New York Times. June 2, 1991)

Still, Ruth broke down when he viewed the coffin.

At Gehrig's funeral service on June 4, his Episcopal priest said there would be no eulogy: "We need none because we all knew him." 

* It must be noted here, many reports speak of the generosity of the Babe. At the height of his fame, Babe Ruth hardly ever passed up a request to visit an orphanage or a sick child in the hospital.

Mike Gibbons, Executive Director of the Babe Ruth Musuem and Birthplace, shared this perspective:

“He (Ruth) never ever turned a kid down for an autograph – no matter what. Towards the end, when he was in the hospital before he died, there was always a bunch of kids down on the sidewalk hoping to catch a glimpse of him or something like that. He would have these business-sized cards with nothing on them and he would sign as many of them as he could at the time and give them to his nurse and tell her to take them downstairs to the kids down on the sidewalk, or he would give her $10 and say, ‘here, go buy all the kids some ice cream cones.’”

As another example, St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore suffered a major fire in the 1930′s, which caused significant damage to the main building. In response, Babe organized a fundraising drive that generated over $100,000 – a substantial amount of money in those days — for repairs and rebuilding.

Leon Fichman, who was a child actor in the 1930?s and starred with the Babe in a few short films, told BRC in June 2006 that, “He was the nicest man I ever met. He was so nice to all of us kids when we worked together for those two weeks. I’ll never forget a minute of it. I remember sitting on his lap and he put his arms around me and made out that ball for me that said, ‘To Leon, from one left-hander to another, Babe Ruth”. I’ll never forget it. One of the most important days of my life.”

A Moral?

Who doesn't know a similar story about a feud, a split, or a breakup between two once-close individuals? Whether the relationship was based on friendship, blood, work, or marriage, something tore it apart and left ineradicable scars. We are all sensitive human beings with pride and honor who at some time draw lines that separate those whom we continue to love from those we believe have caused us egregious harm.

And, who doesn't know such a story about a split that involved a stimulus for the termination that was very minor, even minuscule and horribly regrettable? I don't know the real reasons for the feud between Gehrig and Ruth; I can only only read historical, secondhand accounts. I can, however, surmise that the loss of friendship was extremely upsetting to both. I'm sure each man would have benefited by a reconciliation.

Although egos always play a part in such a drama, these men were iconic legends dealing with massive pressures in New York City, where the spotlight of Major League Baseball shone most brightly during their era on the Yankees. They were clearly two of the best baseball players in the history of the game, each going about his immortality in his own way.

I understand the necessity to carry a grudge when no other option seems available. And, granted, sometimes it is better to keep polar opposites at a distance from each other for obvious reasons. This is still the real world, as it was in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet, I can't help but feel sorrow when I review the relationship between an Iron Horse and a Sultan. Perhaps you and I should find a way to mend fences even if we do not possess the power to knock a baseball over the walls.

"I'm not a headline guy. I know that as long as I was 
following Babe to the plate I could have stood on my 
head and no one would have known the difference."

--Lou Gehrig

"Gifted with no flair whatever for the spectacular, except as it might be produced by the solid crash of bat against ball at some tense moment, lost in the honey days of a ballplayer's career in the white glare of the great spotlight that followed Babe Ruth, he nevertheless more than packed his share of the load." 

-- Sportswriter Bill Corum of the Journal American

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