Z a c Zack

Live Life Deliberately

Lou Gehrig left Columbia for the Yankees because ‘a fellow has to eat’

When Lou Gehrig dropped out of Columbia University to sign with the New York Yankees a century ago this summer, his mother wasn’t happy about it. A hard-working immigrant from Germany, Christina Gehrig wanted her son to get a college education and become an architect or engineer.

“For the most part the argument was between Lou and his mother,” the New Yorker’s Niven Busch wrote in a 1929 profile of the future Yankees star. Accepting the Yankees’ contract “would bring in more than enough money for everything they needed; that was a strong argument, but for a while Mrs. Gehrig held out against it.”

Baseball’s annual draft arrives Sunday, a crowning moment for high school teenagers and college stars, but there was no draft when Gehrig made his choice. A Columbia sophomore, Gehrig was such a dominant young athlete that he already was being compared to Yankees superstar Babe Ruth. When he left the Manhattan Ivy League school in June 1923 to join the Yankees in the Bronx, he received a $1,500 bonus — about $27,000 in today’s dollars — immediately pulling his family out of poverty.

As much as it pained his mother for him to drop out of college, Gehrig didn’t have much of a choice once the Yankees offered him that contract. As he explained his decision a few months after his famous July 4, 1939, “Luckiest Man” retirement speech, “There’s no getting away from it, a fellow has to eat,” adding that his father was sick and the family needed money. “So when there was no money coming in there was nothing for me to do but sign up.”

A bit of a late-bloomer, Gehrig grew up in Manhattan’s Yorktown and Washington Heights neighborhoods. His father, also an immigrant, bought a right-handed mitt for his lefty son, who made the best he could with the mismatched equipment, as Jonathan Eig wrote in his book, “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.” In high school, the shy boy didn’t muster the courage to try out for a sports team until his junior year. Even when he did, baseball was Gehrig’s weakest sport (he also played soccer and football), but soon people started hearing about his prodigious home runs at a time when few major leaguers were hitting towering shots, Eig recounted.

In Babe Ruth’s final steps on public stage, two brushes with history

The highlight of his youth career came in June 1920, soon after he turned 17. Gehrig’s Commerce High team, the city champions, took a train west to take on Chicago’s championship team, Lane Tech High, at Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field). As the New York Daily News reported:

“Chicago’s champions went down to defeat by a score of 12 to 6 in a game laden with thrills and heroic acts and featured by a home run over the right wall by Louis Gehrig, the New York lad known as the ‘Babe Ruth’ of the high schools. The real Babe never poled one more thrilling, for the bases were filled, two were out and it was the ninth inning.”

The paper reported that more than 6,600 fans attended, a huge crowd for a high school game.

The Chicago Tribune touted the muscular “ ‘Babe’ Gehrig” from New York, describing how his blast landed on Sheffield Avenue and bounced to a porch across the street. “It was a blow of which any big leaguer would have been proud and was walloped by a boy who hasn’t yet started to shave,” the newspaper added.

That year was also Ruth’s first season with the Yankees, who had purchased him from the Boston Red Sox. As Gehrig was attracting attention in Chicago, Ruth was single-handedly transforming America’s most popular sport. In 1920, he hit a then-record 54 home runs — more than any other team except the Philadelphia Phillies’ 64 — while batting .376 with 135 RBI.

From ‘the Little Heine’ to Columbia star

The next year, as Ruth was reaching, well, Ruthian levels by hitting 59 homers, Gehrig was just getting started at Columbia. But it wasn’t his first exposure to the college. When he was just a boy, Gehrig’s mother had worked at the Sigma Nu fraternity on campus, and his father looked after the furnace. As the New Yorker described the family arrangement, Mrs. Gehrig’s 11-year-old son would often help her with the dishes. The fraternity brothers dubbed young Lou “the little Heine” and sometimes would have a catch with him after dinner.

The little Heine turned into a muscular 230-pound high school athlete. One day, as his football team was playing a game on the Columbia field, the university’s graduate manager of athletics, Robert Watt, was in the stands. Watt had managed the fraternity when Gehrig’s mother worked there and was impressed with Commerce’s sizable fullback, although he didn’t recognize him as the kid who used to hang around the fraternity until Gehrig’s father approached him.

As Busch wrote in his 1929 New Yorker profile:

“The fullback of the High School of Commerce was his own son, the former furnace-man informed the director — didn’t he remember Lou, the little Heinie? The coincidence of their old acquaintanceship, together with the arguments advanced by the athletic director when he found the little Heinie in the showers, resulted in procuring another presumable football star for Columbia.”

Gehrig enrolled in the Columbia University extension program in February 1921 on a football scholarship. But soon after, the New York Giants baseball team convinced him to come to a tryout at the Polo Grounds. Gehrig pummeled seven homers during the June tryout, but he also let a groundball go through his legs.

“Get this fellow out of here!” John McGraw, the Giants’ legendary manager, barked to his coaches, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. “I’ve got enough lousy players without another one showing up.”

Baseball’s oddest arms race featured balls thrown from the Washington Monument

The scout didn’t give up on him, arranging for Gehrig to play that summer for a minor league team, the Hartford Senators, using aliases such as “Lefty Gehrig” (not much of an alias) and “Lew Lewis.” In agreeing to that arrangement, Gehrig “committed the most scandalous act of an otherwise squeaky-clean career,” Eig wrote. “He almost certainly knew that college athletes were not allowed to play for money.”

When Columbia’s coach found out, he asked the rival coaches of Dartmouth, Cornell, Amherst and Middlebury to overlook Gehrig’s “innocent mistake.” They agreed he would be suspended for a year in lieu of a permanent ban.

After playing football in the fall of 1922 as a sophomore, Gehrig joined the baseball team in the spring of 1923 and, in another echo of Ruth, dominated as both a pitcher and hitter. Gehrig hit .444 with seven home runs in 19 games while going 6-4 on the mound. On April 18, 1923 — the same day Ruth christened “The Yankee Stadium” in the Bronx with a home run — Yankees scout Paul Krichell went across the river to Manhattan to see Gehrig fan 17 batters in one of his final games. A month later, on May 19, Gehrig pitched a three-hitter and blasted his final college home run, the longest in Columbia history.

A signing and a big league debut

It’s interesting to ponder what Gehrig would have done if he had the opportunity to make endorsement deals for his name, image and likeness — especially in light of the fact that he became the first athlete to appear on the cover of Wheaties, 11 years later. Could Gehrig have pleased his mother by getting his degree while earning money needed to support himself and his family?

Baseball was the biggest sport in the country at the time, and Americans were far more interested in college baseball than college football, Eig noted in a recent telephone interview.

“And Gehrig might have been able to cash in on that at that point,” he said. “He was hitting home runs like Babe Ruth. He would have clearly been the biggest college star in the Northeast. And those Ivy League schools, those Eastern schools were probably the best college baseball teams in the country. So he definitely would have had some marketability.”

But once the Yankees came calling, Eig added, it might have been hard for Gehrig to pass that up, no matter what.

Indeed, Gehrig’s signing with the Yankees was national news. Reporters hailed him as the second coming of George Sisler, a future Hall of Famer who had hit .420 the previous season.

Gehrig’s June 15, 1923, MLB debut, nearly two years before he began his consecutive games streak, was a bit anticlimactic. He played just a half-inning in the field of a 10-0 Yankees rout, coming in as a defensive replacement for Wally Pipp, who had gone 2 for 4 with two RBI as the team’s cleanup hitter. “[Manager] Miller Huggins sent Lou Gehrig, the Columbia University slugger, to first base in the ninth, and Lou conducted himself in faultless fashion,” the New York Times reported.

Had Gehrig been able to stay for his final two years at Columbia, it probably wouldn’t have stunted his big league career. For all the fanfare surrounding him, the Yankees weren’t ready to give him any real playing time for those first two seasons, when he was blocked by Pipp, the player whose name he would be linked with forever. Instead, Gehrig spent most of those two years in the minors. Pipp was a star in his own right at the time, but by the time Gehrig replaced him in 1925, Pipp was 32 and on a downward trajectory.

Two years later, Gehrig had his breakout season on the 1927 Murderers’ Row Yankees, batting .373 and leading the league with 52 doubles and 173 RBI. He also battled Ruth for the home run title for much of the season, in what some in the press dubbed the “Great American Home Run Derby,” before Ruth broke his own record with 60 homers. Gehrig finished with 47 but still won the AL MVP.

In 17 seasons, Gehrig would finish with a .340 batting average and 493 homers. And while it’s hard to second-guess his decision to leave college early, Gehrig’s mother’s attitude, as Eig noted, was typical for immigrants of that generation.

“They want their kids to be educated. And it’s not really realistic for most kids to think that they’re going to play professionally,” he said. “So in many ways, Ma Gehrig is right.”


(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)