This past weekend baseball lost two icons: Earl Weaver and Stan “The Man” Musial. These deaths saddened me and made me reflect on the great history of the game.
When I was in sixth grade, my teacher gave me a list of famous people from which I could choose one as a subject for a research paper. Since I was a rabid Dodgers fan, I chose to do Babe Ruth. Although the list probably had Jackie Robinson, Ruth piqued my interest because he held the record for most career home runs from 1921-74. The folklore surrounding Ruth appealed to an 11-year-old kid.
Looking back with much more maturity, I should have chosen Lou Gehrig over Ruth because Gehrig exemplified everything that I want to see in a baseball player. This weekend I watched “A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story” several times. What impressed me about the made-for-TV movie was the humanity of Lou Gehrig.
Ruth might have been the best baseball player who has ever lived, especially considering his superb pitching record while with the Boston Red Sox. Nevertheless, he was a boorish man who lacked self-discipline. I would have loved to see how Ruth would have performed if he took better care of himself. He ate too much, especially hotdogs, and drank too much beer. However, he changed how baseball has been played and American culture forever.
While Ruth was flashy and did everything loudly, Gehrig was a great human being who had an incredible ability to play baseball. Gehrig had a loving family who worked hard to give their only son a good education. His mother could be overbearing but was the main breadwinner for the family until Gehrig joined the Yankees. Gehrig attended Columbia University to pursue an engineering degree, but when his exceptional baseball talent was discovered, Gehrig chose to play professionally, disappointing his mother, who wanted him to have a college degree.
This good family background helped to shape Gehrig into the man who he was. Ruth was sent away to a Catholic orphanage because his father couldn’t keep track of the rambunctious child while keeping bar. With a good family behind him, Gehrig was a steady ballplayer who always followed the rules set by the Yankees, while Ruth’s off-the-field behavior represented a source of concern for his managers.
At the beginning of the movie, the actress portraying Lou’s wife made an excellent point that Gehrig’s baseball statistics didn’t tell the story of the man. I always thought this too, and I dislike writing about baseball players who I never witnessed play. Gehrig’s offensive statistics were extraordinary, but no one says much about his defense. No other player has produced runs at the same rate as Gehrig did.
His consecutive games record of 2,130 stood for 56 years until Cal Ripken, Jr., broke it on Sept. 6, 1995. I don’t see anyone else coming close to this amazing record. Gehrig sustained many concussions and broken bones, but nothing kept him out of the lineup until he developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or now known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). His devotion to the game should always be remembered and used as an example for young players.
The Gehrigs were happily married for eight years, even though the last two were tormented by the rapid progression of ALS. Even now, with all of the medical advancements, people with ALS become paralyzed everywhere and the average length of survival is only 39 months. Lou survived almost two years after he received the diagnosis.
Gehrig never knew his disease was terminal because his wife didn’t want anyone to tell him that he was dying. The sportswriters waived the requirement for a five-year wait after a player retires before he can be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for Gehrig. He was the second-youngest player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. When baseball had its All-Century Team voting in 1945, Gehrig received the most votes of any player. In ‘99, when baseball had another All-Century Team, Gehrig received the seventh-most votes.
Gehrig’s wife never remarried. At the end of the movie, the reporter who was helping her write the book about her husband’s life asked about that. She simply answered, “I had the best.”