Caught up in a bit of nostalgia, I recently ordered and received a biography I read, with no exaggeration, about seven or eight times as a youth. This was an account of the life of Lou Gehrig, published in the early 1940s. While it’s easy to find deep meaning in the things of our childhood, I can say that this former New York Yankee was a strong, quiet guiding force in my young life.
I seldom struggle for words but I had to search for how to tell my friend the other day why Lou Gehrig left such an indelible mark on me in my youth. Finally, I somewhat blurted out: “With all the chaos in my home, everything I wanted so badly was something found in him: consistency, stability, strength.” Lou Gehrig was the kind of person conspicuously absent in my life at that point. Even now, I sometimes meditate on what he represents when I need to quiet my mind.
For 15 years, from 1925 to 1939, Gehrig played 2,130 consecutive games for the Yankees, in his native New York home. I learned from The Iron Horse qualities that I would do well to emulate today : He was humble, slow to anger, workmanlike, team-oriented, and consistent.
Lou Gehrig could have been greatly jealous of his famous teammate Babe Ruth. The Babe not only commanded the spotlight, he cultivated it, and carried that light with him. But this never seemed to bother Lou Gehrig. (Some may not realize that it was actually Gehrig who occupied the clean-up spot in the line-up in the famous 1927 “Murderer’s Row”. In that same season, in which Ruth set the record for 60 home runs, Gehrig was actually named Most Valuable Player.)
It was with the same grace that he lived and played that he endured the illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease which became known by his name. His famous speech when he was forced into an early retirement personifies the sort of courage with which we all hope to face mortality:
Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow,Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you. (July 4, 1939)
When Lou finished his speech, the crowd gave him a long standing ovation, and he was hugged by the Babe. Jaded sportswriters wiped away tears.
Do we outgrow our heroes? Do we become too old to regard an athlete as someone to be emulated? To the contrary, I would do well to continue growing to be more like Lou Gehrig.