Lou Gehrig is remembered for three things: his greatness on the field, a speech, and the disease that claimed his life. He left a legacy in baseball and for those facing adversity, especially those battling ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Today is the 80th anniversary of Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium and Gehrig delivering baseball’s most famous speech. He did not focus on his problems, rather he spoke of the good in his life. A life cut short less than two years later.
On the diamond, Lou Gehrig was a tremendous competitor, forming the toughest duo in baseball history with Babe Ruth. Gehrig played 17 seasons for the Yankees, 1923 to 1939. In 2,164 Games, Gehrig collected 2,721 Hits, 534 Doubles, 163 Triples, 493 Home Runs, 1,995 RBI, scored 1,888 Runs, Stole 102 Bases, drew 1,508 Walks, 790 Strike Outs, .340 BA, .447 OBP, .632 SLG, and 1.080 OPS. Gehrig’s career numbers ensured his enshrinement into Cooperstown, even without his special election in 1939.
Putting Lou Gehrig’s greatness into perspective, consider his all time rankings today. Gehrig ranks 64th in Hits with 2,271. He is 42nd in Doubles with 534 and 33rd in Triples with 163. His 493 Home Runs still ranks him 28th. His 1,995 RBI are seventh all time. Gehrig’s 1,190 extra base hits are 11th most and his 5,060 total bases are 19th all time. His 1,888 runs scored rank 12th all time. He walked 1,508 times, 17th most. A career .340 hitter, 16th best. His .447 OBP is fifth, his .632 SLG and 1.079 OPS both place him third all time. His 179 OPS+ ranks fourth and his 112.3 oWAR places him 14th. 80 years after his final game, Lou Gehrig remains an all time great.
Hall of Fame numbers are not compiled in a few good seasons here and there, they come from excellence year after year. In Gehrig’s 17 seasons with the Yankees, he played fewer than 13 games in three seasons. Playing 14 full seasons before ALS robbed him of his abilities further shows Gehrig’s greatness. The Iron Horse registered eight seasons of 200 or more hits, leading the league in 1931. In 1927 and 1928 he led baseball in Doubles with 52 and 47 respectively. In 1926, his 20 triples paced baseball. Gehrig was the Home Run King three times (1931, 1934, and 1936). He was perfectly placed in Murderers’ Row, leading the league in RBI five times, driving in at least 109 in 13 consecutive seasons. He led baseball in Runs Scored four times, scoring 115 or more Runs in 13 consecutive seasons. The Iron Horse possessed both power and patience at the plate, drawing at least 100 Walks in 11 seasons, leading baseball on three occasions. Gehrig struck out a career high 84 times in 1927, he would never strike out more than 75 times in any other season. Gehrig hit .300 or better in 12 straight seasons, led the league in Slugging twice, OPS three times with 11 consecutive seasons above 1.000. He had five seasons with at least 400 total bases, leading baseball four times. In 1934, Gehrig won the American League Triple Crown with a .363 BA, 49 Home Runs, and 166 RBI. Shockingly he finished fifth in MVP voting behind a trio of Tigers (Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, and Schoolboy Rowe) and teammate Lefty Gomez. Gehrig did win two MVP Awards (1927 and 1936), while finishing in the top five in six other seasons. The Iron Horse was always a MVP contender.
Lou Gehrig was one of the greatest players to ever step on a diamond. (Mark Rucker/ Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
The Yankees during the Gehrig years were seemingly in the World Series every October. Lou Gehrig played in seven Fall Classics. New York won six World Series with Gehrig (1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, and 1938), sweeping their National League opponents four times. Gehrig played in 34 Games with 119 At Bats. He collected 43 Hits, 8 Doubles, 3 Triples, 10 Home Runs, 35 RBI, and scored 30 Runs. He drew 26 walks against 17 Strikeouts. Gehrig hit .361, .483 OBP, .731 SLG, and 1.214 OPS. The Iron Horse helped the Yankees reach and win multiple World Series.
Despite his greatness on the diamond, Lou Gehrig is best remembered for the speech he gave on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Day, as the Yankees honored him as he fought ALS. The Gettysburg Address of Baseball remains one of the most famous moments in baseball history. There is no known full recording of the speech, however we do have a partial recording and a transcript of Gehrig’s words.
“For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such a fine looking men as they’re standing in uniform in this ballpark today? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift- that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies- that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter- that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body- it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed- that’s the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”
As the first major Jewish sports star in the United States, Hank Greenberg led the charge for social acceptance for future Jewish players. Like many on the list of the eight greatest Jewish baseball players of all time, Greenberg‘s accomplishments are not confined to the baseball diamond. His contributions to the game of baseball and to the United States will continue to be felt for generations to come.
Hank Greenberg played 13 seasons in Major League Baseball. The first 12 were spent with the Detroit Tigers before finishing his career with a single season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. During his 13 seasons, Greenberg batter .313, with 1,051 Runs Scored, 1,628 Hits, 379 Doubles, 331 Home Runs, 1276 RBI, 852 Walks against 844 Strikeouts, with a .412 On Base Percentage, while Slugging .605, and having an OPS of 1.017. Additionally had had a career .990 Field Percentage.
In 1934, Greenberg refused to play games schedule for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Ultimately he would play on Rosh Hashanah, after much discussion with his Rabbi, but not on Yom Kippur. He was criticized for his decision, as many fans felt he should have played on both holidays. Regardless if you are Jewish or not, one cannot argue against the courage it took for Greenberg to take such a stand for his faith, including the fact that both holidays occurred during the Tigers pennant chase. Greenberg’s actions were taken long before the idea of activist athletes was even considered, much less a reality.
A five time All Star, Greenberg twice won the Most Valuable Player Award (1935 and 1940). He also led the American League in several offensive categories, including: Runs (1938), Doubles (1935, 1940), Home Runs (1935, 1938, 1940, 1946), RBI (1935, 1937, 1940, 1946), Walks (1938, 1947), Strikeouts (1939). His OPS stayed above 1.000 in every season from 1934 through 1940.
The career statistics for Greenberg are impressive, and are staggering when you consider he only player in 19 games total from 1941 through 1944 when he was in his early thirties and his prime. In 1940, Greenberg was the first American League player to be drafted during World War II. He would be discharged shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and then volunteer to return to duty. When he was discharged for good in June 1945. He service time in the military during World War II was the longest of any Major League player.
Following his retirement from playing, Greenberg worked with the Cleveland Indians beginning in 1948, eventually becoming the General Manager, as well as part owner, and leading the team through a successful period in the 1950’s. He resigned following the 1957 season. He would also work with the Chicago White Sox as their General Manager from 1959 through 1961.
Hank Greenberg’s career numbers and individual season achievement saw him elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956. He is among the greatest baseball players of all time. His achievements and service both on and off the field rightly give him the distinction as being the second greatest Jewish baseball player of all time.