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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Inside the Iron Horse
Book Review by Daniel Gabriel

Jonathan Eig. Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005, 432 pp., $26.00, cloth.

 

While every baseball fan knows the broad outlines of the Lou Gehrig story—the 2,130 consecutive games, the Murderer's Row pairing with Babe Ruth en route to seven World Championships, the abrupt and tragic end to his career due to ALS (now known as "Lou Gehrig's disease")—few have had the chance to see beneath the surface of the legend. Gehrig was notoriously uncolorful and unquotable (the anti-Babe, if you will), and between his steady consistency on the diamond and the shadow of his domineering mother in his private life, it has often been felt that there was little more to learn.

Far from it, as Jonathan Eig has so capably demonstrated in this book. Don't worry, the Iron Horse does not turn out to have feet of clay—and, clearly, Gehrig's stoicism wasn't just invented by the press. But Eig's research is so thorough that by spading up all the spare pasture of Gehrig's life, he has come as close as anybody could to taking the true measure of the man. Eig "interviewed hundreds of people . . . examined the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and—most importantly—unearthed nearly 200 pages of correspondence to and from Gehrig, none of which has ever been published."

Dry research is one thing. What Eig has done with it is quite another. He uses it to weave the previously unknown with the already well-known to allow the careful reader to spot the resulting pattern within. When new characters enter, Eig gives us quick background on each. At first, I wondered at the details that he chose, but in every instance—John McGraw and Joe McCarthy are two good examples—the elements of people's lives which are highlighted are ones that are crucial to the unfolding story.

Of equal importance is that no-where does Eig appear to overstep the bounds of what the evidence actually portrays. Early in his career, Gehrig uncharacteristically blows his top and is involved in a fistfight with Ty Cobb. Why, exactly? Who can say? Eig gives us every scrap of information—including the fact that the press, naturally, reported none of this—without attempting to shoehorn some psychological phantasm into the situation.

Another sensitive spot relates to a supposed indiscretion between Gehrig's wife Eleanor and the ever-womanizing Babe. Exactly what happened? No witnesses remain who can say. But Eig takes us just as far as the evidence allows, without sullying anybody's reputation. What a temptation it might have been to trumpet this book's appearance as "now it can be told . . . why Ruth and Gehrig detested each other!" But their relationship was far more complex than that. And, frankly, I came away convinced that Eleanor did not overstep anything except society's expectations of her.

Speaking of Eleanor, much to my surprise I found her to be one of the most compelling characters in the book. I had always imagined her as a drab mother-surrogate for the shy, hapless Lou, but she was far more intriguing than that. A bold, worldly flapper with more than a passing acquaintance to Chicago's underworld and speakeasy life, Eleanor played a critical role in enabling Lou to break free of his loving, but domineering mother. He never became the life of the party, but Eleanor's presence enabled him to at least relax a bit at the party. She took him from being a guy who wore drab sweatshirts and baggy pants to a sharp-suited figure who properly showed off his Hollywood-handsome looks. She traveled to Japan with him on a barnstorming tour (her encounter with Ruth was on the ship over), but when the rest of the players returned home after the tour, Lou and Eleanor spent three months crossing Asia and Europe. When they landed back in the United States, "Gehrig was gushing as he stepped down the gangplank . . . he couldn't wait to tell all about his trip. . . ." They had adventures aplenty, and it's simply impossible to imagine tight-buttoned Lou daring any of them without the suave, sophisticated Eleanor at his side.

There's plenty in here about the Yankees, of course. Much of it centers on the contrast between Gehrig and Ruth, Gehrig's devotion to his managers, his solitude (except with his best friend, Bill Dickey, and the writer Fred Lieb and his wife Mary) and his resistance to notions that he should take a day or two off and rest up. We follow each Yankee season, and watch as the team changes from the rip-roaring pranksters of the Ruth-led twenties into a coldly efficient machine in the late thirties that becomes DiMaggio's team overnight. Somehow Lou is always caught in the middle and overlooked, but Eig demonstrates how much of that hardworking seriousness on the later teams is due to Gehrig's own example.

For the detail-conscious: Eig tracks Gehrig's changing bat orders to document his physical decline and offers a compelling set of accounts of each of Gehrig's handful of 1939 games.

A couple more points before we touch on the inevitably grim denouement: Eig has ferreted out virtually every knowable tidbit of Gehrig's life. From studying the crossed-out letters on Lou's birth certificate, he believably recreates the thought processes of Lou's mother as she's settling on his name. He relates the tragically shortened lives of each of Lou's siblings . . . which begins to explain some of the overbearing maternal attention given to this only child. (Though even Eig admits that he can't quite fathom Lou's passive and distant father, Heinrich.)

Eig rightly focuses the bulk of the book on Gehrig's Yankee years, but he gives us plenty of detail prior to that. Compelling early episodes include a trip to Chicago by Lou's high school team, where he belts a ninth-inning grand slam out of Wrigley, and John McGraw's shortsighted dismissal of the young Gehrig after a tryout with the Giants.

The only mistakes I could find in the book were undoubtedly due to the fact that I was working with an uncorrected reader's proof. Obviously, Ty Cobb did not play in the 1969 World Series . . . though with the Amazin' Mets, almost anything was possible. A bigger loss for me was that this reader's proof did not include the sixteen pages of photos to be found in the book. Eig alludes to enough of them in the text that I became quite tantalized.

For example, there's a fascinating chapter on Gehrig's surprising desire to take Hollywood by storm—by playing Tarzan. Publicity photos go out: "In one, Gehrig wore a leopard-skin loincloth only slightly bigger than a jock strap and swung a papier-maché war club. . . . In another, he wore a caveman-style outfit that covered one shoulder and came down barely low enough to cover his crotch and rear end." Even here, in this sideshow distraction, Eig finds a link to baseball: "These were the most revealing portraits of Gehrig's body ever taken . . . his lower body appeared to belong to another species, neither man nor ape. Each thigh was bigger than many a man's waist, each calf the size of a Christmas ham. Here was the hidden source of his tremendous power and durability."

Ah, yes. Power and durability. That was the essence of Lou Gehrig. And it was always, always there. With Lou, there was never any "the following season was a disappointment, due to injuries and . . ." Injuries he had, and Eig details them all. But somehow he just kept on playing, and when he played, he produced. His home run totals might swing up or down from year to year, but batting average, runs scored, and (most important to Lou) runs batted in, were always rock solid. He only played 13 complete seasons, but in seven of those he drove in over 150 runs. He always drove in well over 100, and never scored fewer than 127 (127!) until his final full season in 1938, when the still-unknown ALS was already affecting his movements so much that a group of concerned teammates almost went to the manager to ask for his removal from the lineup.

This was reported during the spring of 1939, when Gehrig looked absolutely pathetic. ("DiMaggio, stunned, said he saw Gehrig swing and miss at nineteen consecutive batting-practice pitches, all of them easily crushable. It was a performance that defied comprehension.") Nobody yet knew what was wrong, but as columnist Jimmy Powers wrote, "ėGehrig was bad enough last year. . . .'" How bad had he been in 1938, while struggling to keep his balance and counteract failing muscles and nerve endings? He'd batted only .295, with 115 runs, 29 HRs (*pre-steroid era), and a shabby 114 RBI. Did he hurt his team by playing? The Yankees won the pennant by nine-and-one-half games and then went on to sweep the Series.

You may have noticed that I've been avoiding the last section of this book. Clearly, it's a significant part of what Eig wants to cover, and without it, the story of the Iron Horse is woefully incomplete. But I found it immensely saddening . . . and still do, even as I write this. Sure, we know how it ends, but Eig takes us so deeply behind the public scenes (which are wrenching enough; the "luckiest man" speech alone is one of baseball's most indelible moments) that we are there at the hospital as Lou first goes in for tests; we are walking alongside the shuffling, struggling former mountain of a man as he falls out of taxis and rides the bench with the Yankees all through their 1939 stretch drive. We watch him being sent to specialists, trying miracle cures, confiding in Eleanor. We are there in the room with him the last time the boys come to visit. We see his final breaths. We're part of the throngs filing past his casket. It's all very well done. And pretty damned moving.

Even here, Eig gives us something special. There's lots of material from Eleanor's memoirs and extensive correspondence between Lou and his Mayo Clinic doctor, which has never before seen the light of day. What exactly did Lou know and understand of his disease? (It was extremely rare and little known in those days, and remains so still today.) How much of his persona—both public and private—was a cover for his inner turmoil? Could anything have been done differently? Eig lays it all out on the page. Draw your own conclusions. Lou Gehrig's legacy stands rock solid.



—EFQ

 

DANIEL GABRIEL's stories and articles have appeared widely in eight countries. He continues to coach youth baseball at various levels and is Director of Arts Education Programs for COMPAS, an arts organization in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

© 2005 Daniel Gabriel

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