Lou Gehrig is an iconic figure in baseball history, both for his legendary career with the New York Yankees as a slugging first baseman, and because of his tragic death from an eponymous disease at the age of 37. Despite his exploits on the field, he nearly had another star turn—that of Hollywood actor. At one point he was actually poised to assume the role of Tarzan in the movies but was ultimately passed over; possibly due to knobby knees.
The Iron Horse captivated the baseball world during his 17-year run with the Yankees. He walloped the baseball to the tune of a .340 career batting average with 493 home runs, 1,995 RBIs and six World Series championships. Having studied at prestigious Columbia University, he was more educated, and perhaps as a consequence, more taciturn than other stars of the day, especially his teammate Babe Ruth. Accordingly, he did not receive the same amount of attention when it came to the cross-branding some like the Bambino did with baseball and the burgeoning Hollywood business. However, his big nearly came in 1936, when he was 33 and coming off an MVP season and there was a search for the next Tarzan.
Johnny Weismuller, a chiseled winner of multiple Olympic gold medals as a swimmer, created a lucrative secondary career playing Tarzan in a number of successful movies. After he decided to work on other projects, a replacement was sought. Christy Walsh, Gehrig’s business manager, knew an opportunity when he saw it and pushed for his client to be given the role.
In an effort to boost his candidacy, Gehrig went public with his desire to don the loin cloth of fame. When asked if he was afraid of animals, he played up his baseball experience and his flair for the dramatic, exclaiming, “No! At least I’m not afraid of Tigers—I’ve faced many of ‘em in 12 years of baseball—but those Lions, well, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Sex was not discussed as openly as it is today but was still an integral part of selling movies. When Walsh first contacted producer Sol Lesser about getting Gehrig a screen test, one of the first things they did was ask for more revealing photographs of the slugger, as the only frame of reference they had as to how he might look were the pictures of him in his baggy baseball uniform. “I guess the public’s entitled to a look at my body,” Gehrig acknowledged after news of this spread.
Walsh was unabashedly brash in promoting his client, telling reporters, “Lou’s got everything to go over big in the movies. He stands six-feet-one and weighs 210 pounds. If he gets a chance with lions and tigers there’ll probably be a scarcity of those species after he gets through with them. The next move is up to Hollywood.”
Gehrig was asked who he’d like to have as a leading lady. Although he admitted actress Irene Dunne was his favorite, he did say “I could act much better with my wife in my arms.” When the matter of matching the sex appeal of Weismuller was brought up, Gehrig let that one go by, simply stating, “I’ll leave that up to you fellows and the ladies—If I get the chance.”
Initially, it appeared that Gehrig had nabbed the role. Walsh cryptically told reporters, “Nothing definite has been done but the possibilities have been discussed and Gehrig will be glad to consider the details, if and when they develop.” The papers even started speculating how much money would coax the first baseman on to the big screen.
In late October, 1936, a deal seemed imminent but then quickly went south. The press had printed a photo of Gehrig in his Tarzan leopard cloth dress, wielding a cudgel and making a “jungle call.” Although the world-class athlete had a phenomenal physique, his less-developed knees were allegedly noticeable right away by the Hollywood set who needed to make sure that their next scantily clad hero was unimpeachable when it his level of studliness.
No less than Edgar Rice Burroughs, the original author of Tarzan, went public with his gallon of gasoline he threw on the fire. He sent the aspiring actor a chilly telegram, confirming he didn’t think he had what it took. “Having seen several pictures of you as Tarzan and paid about $50 for newspaper clippings on the subject, I want to congratulate you on being a swell first baseman,” the writer wired sarcastically. Sadly, Hollywood decided to go in another direction with a different actor (Olympic decathlete Glenn Morris) and left Gehrig to continue his career on the baseball diamond.
Gehrig was purported to claim he was the one who turned the role down because being in costume made him feel “too naked.” As a consolation prize, the movie studio gave him a contract “to appear in other pictures.” This led to just one movie role—though a starring one. He received top billing in the 1938 film, Rawhide, whose plot is described by IMDB as “Baseball superstar Gehrig is one of several ranchers being coerced by a bunch of bandits. His sister and her lawyer/lover organize the ranchers.”
It’s indisputable that Lou Gehrig was a much better baseball player than actor. However, he may have gotten a chance to prove otherwise if his apparently non-shapely knees didn’t prevent him from taking over a legendary Hollywood franchise.
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