The Sports Hero Who Was a Real Hero

Culture Watch

Mr. Kashatus, the author of Lou Gehrig: The Making of an American Legend (forthcoming in 2004), is a writer for the History News Service.

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Baseball celebrates the 100th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's birth this year. It's likely to be a refreshing change from having to mark the anniversaries of other prominent figures we've elevated to the status of "hero."

As Americans, we often say that we want role models who reflect values we hold dear. But we deceive ourselves into believing that they're devoid of human frailties. For example, we deified President Kennedy, not only because he redefined the style of American politics with his good looks, quick wit and intelligence, but because his assassination represented the loss of the limitless potential we believed we enjoyed as a nation. But then we refused for a long time to admit that Kennedy was a philanderer who suffered from Addison's disease -- all too human weaknesses in both cases.

Similarly flawed are the anti-heroes of our popular culture. Sports has given us Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers, a trash-talker who, like the adolescents who adore him, believes that his only responsibility to the team comes on game day. Other anti-heroes, such as Michael Jackson and Madonna, thrive on the shock value of their music and are worshiped in part because of the personal abuse they suffered as children. We are left to wonder whether they deserve our pity more than our admiration.

To be sure, heroes come from many different backgrounds and are as diverse as their admirers. What made Lou Gehrig's example so enduring was that he was an ordinary person who was keenly aware of his human frailties and still managed to accomplish extraordinary things.

Born on June 19, 1903, in a tenement house on New York's Lower East Side, Gehrig grew up in poverty. He worked at odd jobs to contribute to his German immigrant family's income while struggling through school. Gehrig's hard work in the classroom and on the athletic field earned him a scholarship to Columbia College.

Had his ailing parents not needed the money to pay medical bills, "Columbia Lou" might well have completed his degree. Instead, he signed with the Yankees after his sophomore year in 1923 and made a virtue out of a necessity.

At 6 feet and 200 pounds, Gehrig was a strikingly handsome young man with a rock-solid physique that enabled him to become the premier clean-up hitter in baseball for most of his seventeen-year career. His statistical totals underscore his enduring status as an American sports hero. Year in and year out, he hit the ball with power, batted over .300, and almost always drove in more than 100 runs. He won five American League RBI titles and, in 1934, the coveted Triple Crown for leading the league in batting average (.363), home runs (49), and RBIs (165). Just as impressive are his .340 lifetime average and 493 career home runs. With Gehrig as clean-up hitter and first baseman, the Yankees captured seven pennants and six world championships.

From June 2, 1925 to May 2, 1939, when he benched himself "for the good of the team," Gehrig appeared in every game the Yankees played. Shaking off injuries, illnesses and even, in the last season of his career, the crippling disease that ultimately claimed his life, Gehrig played in a total of 2,130 games. That record, which earned him the nickname "the Iron Horse," stood for more than a half-century until Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles eclipsed it on September 6, 1995.

The streak also defined Gehrig's character as few records have defined any other sports hero. His example of consistency, hard work and sheer pride in performance endeared him to the common man. Withdrawn, modest and unassuming by nature, Gehrig was happy to surrender the spotlight to more celebrated teammates such as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. He accepted his subordinate position without envy or resentment, admitting that he wasn't "a headline guy, just the Yankee who's in there every day."

Gehrig was cut down in the prime of his life by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which has come to be known as "Lou Gehrig's disease." Yet he confronted his nightmarish fate with grace and dignity. Instead of being bitter or trading on his name, he spent the last years of his life working a $6,000-a-year job as a New York City parole commissioner, writing letters of encouragement to other ALS victims, and cheering on his Yankees from the sidelines until his death on June 2, 1941.

Unlike so many other prominent figures whom we have elevated as heroes, Gehrig never pretended to be anything more than a common person. In the process, his humility taught us some valuable lessons about ourselves and the society in which we live by inspiring us to pay attention to the better angels of our nature.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Dave Thomas - 5/25/2003

Allen Iverson is not a hero because you don't like him. He is a hero to ghetto kids. Maybe he would act different if the America he grew up in didn't make his mom and him sleep in a car. Gehrig can stand on his own without attacking current "heros" you don't care for Mr. Kashaltus.

Joe Pulcinella - 4/25/2003

Actually, if you were as much of an economics buff as you are a history buff, you would conclude that pro sports today, because of the outrageous taxpayer-underwritten salaries, attract the very worst that society has to offer and society has some pretty terrible stuff to offer. So it is pretty safe to conclude that "love of the game" factors in much less today that in Gehrig's time.

Derek Catsam - 4/17/2003

No heroes? Apparently your students need a better teacher. Nelson Mandela, anyone?
Yes, Gehrig played in the sepia tones glory days of baseball. But for all of the advantages he'd have gotten with the 162 game season, he'd have also had to face relievers coming in and throwing 95 miles an hour, which is something he never had to deal with. Not to mention the black players he never played with or against. And as far as today's overpaid stars, pray tell how would Gehrig be paid were we to transport him to today? Pigs and chickens? Or are you just selectively using the time travel machine? Indicting an entire generation of players because they are able to utilize their marketability seems odd and anachronistic.
By the way, I love baseball's history, think Charles Alexander's book on baseball in the Great Depression era (Breaking the Slump, Columbia University Press) is one of the best baseball books in ages, and certainly would like to see some aspects of the old time game brought back. But don't try to sell this bill of goods about the old time players and their superiority. I'll take today's athletes over those in the 1930s any day of the week.

Gary Ostrower - 4/17/2003

Just remember, all you young kids out there: Gehrig's seasons contained 154 games, not the 162 enjoyed by today's overpaid stars. Some of his stats would be even more impressive were he to have played those additional games.

Incidentally, I recently adked a class to name their "heroes." The consensus: No heroes.