Publish date:

The Rise of the Iron Horse

A fine biography of Lou Gehrig offers new insight into one of baseball's most curious, and tragic, heroes

by Jonathan Eig
Simon & Schuster
420 pages, $26.00

Lou Gehrig was the rare sports hero who spent much of his career in the shadows--first of his larger-than-life teammate Babe Ruth and then of the young, dashing Joe DiMaggio. Fans did not really embrace the Iron Horse until his life had gained the pall of tragedy, when he confronted his impending death with a bravery that has since inspired many who learn that they have caught "a bad break," as he put it in his famous farewell at Yankee Stadium. "In the weeks following his tearful speech, Gehrig received more fan mail than he had throughout his entire career," notes Jonathan Eig, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, in this estimable new book. But as Eig also shows, Gehrig lived dramas the fans never knew about.

Luckiest Man is a first-class biography, thoroughly researched and nimbly written. It shows that if its subject wasn't colorful, he was certainly curious. Born to a poor German immigrant family, he was the only one of four Gehrig children to survive infancy, and his mother smothered him with a protective affection that shaped his career as well as his personal life. The Hall of Famer, who batted a lifetime .340, hit 493 homers and played in 2,130 consecutive games, was a man in thrall to authority--"he always approached his job with a grim determination and a deep fear of disappointing his employers, his teammates, and his fans," Eig writes. While his fellow Yankees caroused their way through the Roaring '20s, he would freeze when women asked for his autograph. Gehrig spent most of his evenings at home with his parents, with whom he lived until age 30; a 1929 profile in The New Yorker said of him, "His principal associates are his mother and Babe Ruth." When Gehrig finally did get married, the slugger felt so guilty about leaving his parents that he gave them the house they shared, and most of his money.

Gehrig loosened up somewhat after he married. With the encouragement of his outgoing wife, Eleanor, he chatted up reporters, aggressively negotiated contracts with Yankees owners and even spent his last healthy off-season in Hollywood, shooting a Western. "Boy, I've never had so much fun in my life," Gehrig told a reporter. Just as he was really beginning to enjoy himself, it seems, he received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the degenerative nerve disease that now bears his name. Eig shines in reporting on the last years of Gehrig's life, helped by access he gained to the private correspondence between Gehrig and Paul O'Leary, a Mayo Clinic doctor who sometimes propped up his patient's spirits by offering hope when there was none. "Please don't judge me a cry baby, or believe me to be losing my guts," Gehrig wrote to O'Leary, "but as always I would like to know the actual truths, and not to continue to receive encouraging reports which have little or no chance of materializing." If Gehrig's "luckiest man" speech offered fans a glimpse into his character, Eig's Luckiest Man pushes the door wide open. ■






Eig (inset) notes that Gehrig loosened up after his marriage to Eleanor.