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Lou Gehrig was the luckiest unlucky man of all time
“Fans, for the past two weeks you’ve been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Those were the opening lines of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech on July 4, 1939. Less than two years later, just a few weeks shy of his 38th birthday, he was dead, victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that would ultimately bear his name.
It is, in fact, hard to think of a player with worse luck than Lou Gehrig. Although I think today everyone acknowledges his greatness in passing, I’m not sure people realize just how great he was and how great he might have been had he remained healthy.
Off to a great start
Gehrig’s first full season was in 1925 at age 22 and he showed some promise right away. Playing in the massive Yankee Stadium (at that time the centerfield fence was an amazing 480 feet from home), he belted 20 homers as a rookie, with 23 doubles and 10 triples. The next season he led the league in triples with 20, and added 47 doubles and 16 homers.
By his third season, at age 24, he developed his power stroke and had one of the more amazing seasons in baseball history – 47 homers, 52 doubles, 18 triples, 175 RBIs and a .373 batting average. He hit more homers than seven entire teams and only a few less than most of the others. He won the MVP award.
Perpetually overshadowed by The Babe
And yet everyone talked about Babe Ruth. Ruth hit 60 homers that season and was larger than life. The only reason Gehrig won the MVP instead of Ruth was because at the time the rule was only one MVP per career and Ruth had won it in 1921.
In the 1928 World Series, Gehrig hit .545 and hit four homers with nine RBIs in the four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.
And everyone talked about Babe Ruth, who hit three homers in Game 4.
Gehrig continued to live in Ruth’s shadow, despite leading the league in RBIs in 1930 and 1931, with 174 and 184. He hit 87 homers in those two years, but Ruth hit 95 homers during the same span.
In the 1932 World Series against the Cubs, Gehrig batted .529 with three homers and eight RBIs in the four-game sweep.
And everyone talked about Ruth’s called shot in Game 3.
After Ruth, playing in the shadows of others
Ruth’s career finally began to fade in 1933. Gehrig didn’t have one of his better seasons that year, but still better than Ruth.
And everyone was talking about Jimmie Foxx, who had won the Triple Crown and MVP award, while playing the same position as Gehrig.
Finally, in 1934, Gehrig had his chance to shine. He won the Triple Crown with a .363 average, 49 homers and 165 RBIs. He walked 109 times and struck out only 31 times.
And he finished fifth in the MVP voting behind three Detroit players and teammate Lefty Grove. Everyone that year talked about Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang.
In 1935, Ruth was gone and Gehrig was walked a lot, 132 times, but had “only” 30 homers and 119 RBIs. Hank Greenberg, another first baseman, overshadowed him.
In 1936 Gehrig had another outstanding season, with 49 homers, 152 RBIs, a .354 batting average and reached base in nearly half his plate appearances. He won his second MVP award.
And everyone was talking about rookie sensation Joe DiMaggio.
He had one more great season, with 37 homers, 37 doubles and 159 RBIs in 1937. By 1938, although he didn’t know it, the ALS was starting to affect him and he finished with a .295 average, 29 homers and 114 RBIs. And then he was done.
What might have been
He never hit 50 homers (49 twice) so he doesn’t get listed among the players with 50 or more; finished with 493 homers, so he never gets listed among the players with 500 or more; he finished with 1,992 RBIs, still fourth all-time but not a nice round number like 2,000. For many years he had ranked first in two categories that seemed unbeatable – consecutive games played with 2,130 and grand slams with 23. Now he has been overshadowed by Cal Ripken’s games played streak and Alex Rodriguez has tied his grand slam mark.
Had he stayed healthy, Gehrig would have undoubtedly reached 600 homers, which would still rank in the top 10 and maybe top 5 all-time, and had 2,400 RBIs and runs scored, which would still be first all-time. He’d probably be in the top five in doubles and maybe even the top 10 in triples. Think of how those numbers would change the perception of Gehrig today.
Only Ruth rivaled Gehrig's hitting prowess
Today people argue about whether Ruth or Ted Williams was the better hitter. I think the answer is Ruth, but the debate really should be between Ruth and Gehrig. (I’ve read that Gehrig’s swing may have been the most powerful in baseball, even ahead of Ruth; it was said he hit balls past outfielders the way most people hit them past infielders.)
Gehrig’s greatness was recognized at the time of his speech. He was the first player to have his uniform number retired and the first player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame without the mandatory five-year waiting period.
But maybe he was lucky
It’s hard to imagine a player who had less luck than Gehrig. And yet, he got to play Major League baseball on some of the greatest teams of all time and played for six World Championship teams. If at age 20 someone had told me I could do all of that in exchange for my life ending at age 38, I would have been tempted.
So maybe Gehrig was right in that July 4 speech, and he really was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.