Baseball icon Lou Gehrig became truly legendary because of his production, durability, and finally his untimely death at the age of 37 in 1941. His name still resonates with fans today, and despite playing many years with Babe Ruth, he was able to stay out of his shadow and create his own enduring legacy.
Much of what we know today about Gehrig comes from his statistics and anecdotal references from many baseball books and stories. Fortunately every now and then good first-person transcripts emerge on the internet like a long-lost treasure. I recently came across a radio interview given by Gehrig on August 22, 1939 in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was undergoing treatment for his ALS at the Mayo Clinic. The interview was conducted by correspondent Dwight Merriam, who got the “Iron Horse” on the record on a number of interesting issues.
The entire interview was posted online- http://moregehrig.tripod.com/id16.html with the permission of KROC-AM Radio. It’s a great opportunity to get some insight on one of the most memorable and tragic players in baseball history. I have pulled out some of Gehrig’s answers that I found most interesting, and included a few of my own thoughts (in italics).
Gehrig on night baseball- “Well, night baseball is strictly a show and is strictly advantageous to the owners' pocketbook. But as far as being a true exhibition of baseball, well, I don't think I can say it is, and it's very difficult on the ballplayers themselves. Of course, we realize that the men who work in the daytime like to get out at night and really see a spectacle, and we do all in our power to give them their money's worth. But after all, it's not really baseball. Real baseball should be played in the daytime, in the sunshine.”
Gehrig, who passed away in 1941, could have never imagined the way night baseball would revolutionize the game. Of course technology, player pay, and fan expectations have all drastically changed, turning night games from “exhibitions” into the norm.
Gehrig on the best players ever- “There's no question about the three greatest and most outstanding ballplayers in the history of baseball have been Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner. Now personally, Ruth was a typical fans' ballplayer. And Cobb was a typical individual ballplayer, because I believe he had more enemies on the ball field than any man in the history of baseball because he played it so hard and he thought of nobody. I mean, cutting or slashing or anything to gain his end, he went through. And yet I think Honus Wagner was the typical ballplayers' ballplayer or the managers' ballplayer, because he was always thinking of winning and doing what he could for the other fellow, for himself, and for his manager and for the fans.”
These are all interesting choices. It was well known that Gehrig and Ruth had a falling out and were not close friends; Cobb was one of the most disliked players in the game; and Wagner played his last game six years before Gehrig stepped on to a major league diamond. All three players represented different styles of play and would have been near the top of anyone’s list of top players at the time, making these diplomatic picks. However, it is clear that Gehrig reserved his highest praise for Wagner, who he seemed to admire as both an athlete and a person- sentiment noticeably lacking in the description of former teammate Ruth.
Gehrig on the top young players in 1939- “I see young [Ted] Williams come out of Minneapolis. He's around this part of the country. And we've got young Joe Gordon with the Yankees. And we've got a young fellow by the name of Charlie Keller, and a young man by the name of [Atley] Donald and there's a couple of young fellas down in St. Louis-- a pitcher by the name of [Bob] Harris and pitcher by the name [Jack] Kramer who looks might well. And you’ve got a young pitcher who was sent back for more experience, had a sore arm, with Boston-- a fella by the name of [Woody] Rich.”
Gehrig proved to have a good eye for young hitters, but was not nearly as adept at identifying pitching prospects. As Williams was hitting .314 with 20 home runs and 106 RBI in 110 games at the time of this interview, the Splendid Splinter was a relatively safe choice. Gordon was also established as one of the most dynamic second basemen the game had ever seen to that point. Of all the pitchers Gehrig mentioned, only Atley Donald had a career that could be described as better than average, and even he saw his career derailed by injuries and being shuttled between starting and relieving.
Gehrig on the possibility of a future players’ union- I don't see how it possibly could work because at that rate a boy would not be rewarded for his abilities. A ballplayers' union would put everybody in the same class, and it would put the inferior ballplayer, the boy who has a tendency to loaf, in the same class, as far as salary is concerned, with the fellow who hustles and has great ability and takes advantage of his ability.
Baseball free agency did not begin until 35 years after Gehrig’s death, but contrary to his bleak outlook it was something he would have certainly benefitted from. I am not aware of Gehrig’s personal feelings on the matter, but it would be easy to argue that he was drastically underpaid during his career. He was often one of the best players in the game, but never made more than $36,000 in any one season, while teammate Babe Ruth always made at least two or three times more each year.
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