Ed. Note: During the current stoppage in baseball, Yankees Magazine is periodically putting some of its archival material online for the first time. This story first appeared in the August 2013 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.
It would turn out to be the single most important phone call in New York Yankees history -- a brief conversation that would significantly impact the course of Major League Baseball.
Yankees chief scout Paul Krichell knew he had seen something special and that he needed to act quickly. He reached Yankees business manager Ed Barrow and got right to the point.
“I’ve found another Babe Ruth.”
Incredibly, Krichell turned out to be right. When he passed away nearly 35 years later after spending more than half a century in baseball, it said it right there in the first line of his obituary: “signed Lou Gehrig.”
It occurred during a golden age of discovery, ranking somewhere between penicillin and King Tut’s tomb. In Yankees terms, Krichell is the baseball equivalent of Christopher Columbus or Ben Franklin.
It was a landmark moment in Bombers history. And it almost never happened.
Paul Bernard Krichell had been a baseball nomad. His pit stops as a catcher and coach read like a time table in Grand Central Terminal: Ossining, Plattsburg (before it had an “h”), Richmond, Hartford, Newark, Montreal, Kansas City, St. Louis, Buffalo, Toronto, Baltimore, Bridgeport.
He certainly knew how to navigate baseball’s back roads, which would prove useful in his role as a scout for the Yankees as would his war stories from his playing days. Like the time Ty Cobb stole second, third and home on him in the same inning. Or when he collected two hits off a fresh-faced kid making his professional debut named Babe Ruth.
When Barrow left the Red Sox front office to oversee the Yankees in 1920, he convinced owner Jacob Ruppert to hire Krichell, then a coach, away from Boston as well. Arriving at his new Midtown Manhattan office on 42nd Street near Bryant Park, Krichell went to work scouting college and semipro players.
The business of unearthing talent was still very much in its infancy. There was precious little information for the scouts -- termed “ivory hunters” -- to go on. They had to rely on their eyes and their instincts.
Krichell would wake up each morning and scan the newspapers to see what games were taking place on the local scene. His first two years on the job, 1921 and ’22, yielded little in terms of new discoveries. Hinkey Haines, a college star at Penn State, was his first “big” signing and hardly panned out, amassing four career hits. But the Yankees won their first two American League pennants, which kept his bosses in good spirits.
In 1923, the Yankees wrapped up their first homestand at Yankee Stadium with a 6-2 record, having swept a four-game set with the Red Sox before splitting four games with the Washington Senators. The team then set out for Boston, leaving Krichell to his scouting duties.
On the morning of Thursday, April 26, Krichell flipped to a listing of that day’s college baseball games. To his dismay, neither New York University -- which he coached in 1919 -- nor Fordham had home games. The closest contest was in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Rutgers was playing host to Columbia.
Years later, Krichell would claim that he didn’t know anything about any of the players he was going to see that day. But Gehrig, who starred on the gridiron at Columbia in the fall, wasn’t a complete unknown. Just eight days earlier, as Ruth christened Yankee Stadium with a home run during its grand opening, the left-handed pitcher/first baseman had struck out 17 batters for Columbia in a game at South Field against Williams College. The April 25 edition of New Brunswick’s Daily Home News even trumpeted his arrival, running the headline “Lou Gehrig, Columbia’s Only Winning Pitcher, Slated to Face Scarlet” across its sports page.
Whether Krichell had heard about the southpaw or not, he “didn’t have anything else to do” that day he later claimed, so he boarded a train out of Penn Station and disembarked about 27 miles southwest of New York City on the banks of the Raritan River.
Krichell made his way along College Avenue, past Rutgers’ historic Old Queens campus and toward Neilson (pronounced Nelson) Field. The outdoor athletic complex sat across the street from the field where the first college football game was played nearly 54 years earlier. Today, the site is occupied by the College Avenue Parking Deck and Records Hall.
The game began at 4 p.m., and it wasn’t long before Krichell perked up and took notice of Columbia’s strapping No. 3 hitter. The big 205-pound sophomore, playing right field for the only time that season, strode to the plate in the first inning with one man aboard and deposited a towering home run over the right-field fence and into the trees along George Street.
The Lions knocked Rutgers’ starting pitcher, Harry Bowman, out of the box with 10 hits in five innings, and Gehrig greeted the second Scarlet hurler, Whitey Mallery, just as rudely in the sixth, delivering another “Ruthian” blow into the trees in right.
Having seen Gehrig also draw a couple of intentional walks and play a decent right field in the Lions’ 9-4 win, Krichell was eager to learn more about this lanky young fence buster. After the game, Krichell boarded the train back to New York along with the Columbia team. A gregarious fellow once described as being “full of jolly quips and merry banter,” he quickly struck up a conversation with an old pal, Lions head coach Andy Coakley.
Like “Krich,” Coakley was a baseball lifer with plenty of tales to tell. He was the losing pitcher during the second of Christy Mathewson’s three shutouts in the 1905 World Series, he helped the Cubs reach the 1908 Fall Classic, and he finished out his big-league career with two appearances for the New York Highlanders in 1911.
Coakley’s true calling was as a coach, though. He would spend 37 years at Columbia, earning posthumous induction into the Collegiate Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. Coakley was “a coach, not only of baseball but of the game of life,” went a 1931 article in The New York Times.
“Coakley feels that a coach can, informally and unobtrusively, help start them toward success in the years which follow commencement day,” the paper continued.
He made a huge impact on Gehrig, teaching him to hit a curve as well as guiding him in life’s major decisions. They remained close for years, and when Gehrig passed away in 1941, Coakley was an honorary pallbearer.
“Who’s that big kid you had out in right field?” Krichell asked.
“Oh, he’s just a left-handed pitcher,” Coakley replied.
“Well, when does he pitch?” Krichell said.
“Saturday against NYU, on South Field,” the coach replied.
Krichell wasn’t the first scout to come sniffing around the Columbia nine. According to Ray Robinson’s biography Iron Horse, Coakley tried to get the Senators to take notice of his budding star.
“Joe Judge, the Washington first baseman and a Brooklyn native, had earlier been tipped off about Gehrig by Coakley,” Robinson wrote. “Judge informed Clark Griffith, the Washington owner, about the boy -- but somehow Griffith’s New York scout failed to follow up on the suggestion, a monumental mistake if there ever was one.”
Yet there was a team even closer to home that almost got to Gehrig before the Yankees -- or even Columbia -- did.
Growing up in Manhattan, Gehrig was a fan of the New York Giants, occasionally plunking down 25 cents to sit in the left-field bleacher seats at the Polo Grounds. Upon graduating from Commerce High School in January 1921, Gehrig enrolled at Columbia on a football scholarship and planned to study engineering. But his exploits as a high school baseball player -- including a monumental home run at Cubs Park (later renamed Wrigley Field) in an intercity championship game -- earned him a tryout with the Giants before he even set foot on campus.
Despite an impressive showing at the plate in front of Giants manager John McGraw, the soon-to-be world champions passed on signing Gehrig to a big-league contract; however, they offered him a deal with the Hartford Senators of the Class A Eastern League. The only catch was that, in order to maintain his college eligibility, Gehrig would have to play under a false name. He went with “Lou Lewis.”
Word got back to Coakley that Gehrig was playing professionally, and the coach quickly arrived in Hartford intent on shuttling the young slugger back to New York as fast as possible.
“Don’t you realize you’re throwing away four years of as good a college education as you can get anywhere in this country?” an angry Coakley demanded. “You’re a very foolish boy. I don’t know whether you have killed a scholarship, but I’ll do my best to have our athletic board go easy with you.”
Education was important to Gehrig, but it was even more important to the most influential person in his life: his mother. Christina Gehrig was the hard-working breadwinner in the impoverished Gehrig household, and she dreamed of seeing Lou -- the only one of her four children who survived infancy -- graduate college.
Although the idea of helping support his family by playing professionally -- not to mention the prospect of eventually playing for the Giants -- was enticing, Gehrig opted to return to Columbia, where he was suspended from athletic competition for his entire freshman year.
Krichell’s enthusiastic phone call certainly piqued Barrow’s interest, but the man responsible for the Yankees’ personnel decisions wanted a second opinion. He dispatched another team scout, Bob Connery, to accompany Krichell to South Field.
All it took was one swing, and Connery was convinced, too.
In Columbia’s 7-2 victory over NYU on April 28, Gehrig pitched well enough, scattering six hits over nine innings and striking out eight. But in the fifth inning, he clouted a gargantuan shot that is still talked about to this day on the Morningside Heights campus.
“He put his 200 pounds into one of Carlson’s fast ones and sent it over the stands into 116th Street for one of the longest homers ever made on South Field,” reported The New York Times the next day.
Connery just looked at Krichell and nodded. He didn’t need to say a word.
Krichell was not about to let the next Babe Ruth get away, so he bulldozed his way into the Lions locker room after the game and introduced himself to Gehrig. After some convincing, the young slugger agreed to meet with Yankees brass. Within days, he signed a contract for $400 a month and a $1,500 bonus -- this time under the name Lou Gehrig.
It was a good thing Krichell acted so quickly. In 1942, a year after Gehrig’s death, Times columnist John Kieran relayed a story of yet another team that was hot on Gehrig’s trail when he was at Columbia.
Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp had played for the Tigers as a rookie and apparently maintained ties with the organization. The club asked Pipp to visit the campus on its behalf one day and arrange for Gehrig to have a tryout for the Tigers.
“Thanks,” said Gehrig with a grin, “but I’ve already agreed to go with the Yankees.”
“The -- what?” said an astounded Pipp.
“The Yankees,” said Gehrig, blandly.
“Well, I thought I was doing you a favor,” said Pipp. “That’s out. Now maybe you can do me a favor. You never saw me before, did you?”
“Sure, I know you,” said Gehrig. “You’re Wally Pipp of the Yankees.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” said Pipp, shaking his head. “Yeah, I’m Pipp of the Yankees, and I’m not being paid to go around and try to steer college stars away from our own club. I stepped into a fast one without knowing it. So do me a favor and forget this, will you?”
Gehrig agreed with a laugh.
The postscript for Gehrig hardly needs to be recounted. Six weeks after signing, he made his big-league debut, entering as Pipp’s defensive replacement at first base in the ninth inning of a 10-0 game and retiring Browns outfielder Jack Tobin unassisted to end it. It was the beginning of a legendary career as the native New Yorker bashed his way into the Hall of Fame and American folklore. He earned the nickname “The Iron Horse” by playing in a record 2,130 consecutive games until he was felled by the illness amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Krichell’s career also took off following that fateful 1923 trip to New Brunswick. After so many years of bouncing from team to team, he settled in with the Yankees, establishing a powerhouse farm system and signing a veritable All-Star team in pinstripes: Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, Tony Lazzeri, Vic Raschi, Charlie Keller and Red Rolfe to name just a few.
“A ‘Krichell squad’ could win a pennant,” wrote the New York Herald-Tribune when it was announced that Krichell would be the first scout to receive the William J. Slocum Memorial Award for “long and meritorious service to the game of baseball” in 1954.
By that point, Krichell had become the longest-tenured member of the Yankees front office, outlasting both Barrow and Ruppert. Yet even to the day he died in June 1957, he always remembered the turning point of his career. Any time Krichell rode on a train between New York and Philadelphia, as it rumbled over the Raritan River, he’d stand up and tip his cap in the direction of Rutgers University, where one of the greatest discoveries in baseball history took place.