Most Americans know Lou Gehrig's tragic story. Fewer know how his widow, Eleanor, lovingly kept the baseball Hall of Famer's memory alive for decades after his untimely death.
At a stunned, capacity Yankee Stadium on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day in between a July 4 doubleheader, a gaunt Gehrig trudged slowly across the infield to the microphone where he accepted gifts and thanked his teammates.
Gehrig, weak and struggling in the summer humidity, knew he had little time left to live.At first, the fatally ill "Iron Horse," a nickname Gehrig acquired while he played in 2,130 consecutive games, appeared unable to speak. But Gehrig dug deep down to utter his famous 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." Less than two years later, Gehrig, at age 37, was dead.
Gehrig is remembered today as baseball's greatest first baseman and an American hero.
After Gehrig's 1939 retirement, the Baseball Writers' Association of America unanimously voted to suspend its five-year waiting protocol and presented him as the sole Hall of Fame candidate. Within six months after Gehrig's special day at Yankee Stadium, the Hall of Fame announced his induction.
Gehrig's on-field accomplishments defy credibility: career batting average, .340, on base and slugging percentages, .447, and .632, 493 HRs and 1,995 RBIs. In seven World Series contests, six that the Yankees won, Gehrig's batting, on base and slugging averages totaled, respectively, .361, .483, and .732.
Sportswriters at the time often wrote that Gehrig played in the bigger-than-life Babe Ruth's shadow. But the always gracious Gehrig said that Ruth cast "a pretty big shadow," which allowed plenty of room for everyone. Eleanor made certain that as long as she lived, her husband's memory and all his outstanding personal qualities would remain at the forefront.
Society for American Baseball Research historian Tara Krieger wrote a moving biographical sketch that highlights many of Eleanor's efforts to preserve the accuracy of Lou's life. Krieger wrote that Eleanor and Lou were married less than eight years. But Eleanor, who never remarried, was a widow for nearly 43. The Associated Press, in its obituary on Eleanor, called her the "First Lady of the Yankees," in part because of her four decades-long presence at annual Yankees' Old Timer' Days.
Eleanor's most important contribution to how the media portrayed Lou after his death was her veto power over the Samuel Goldwyn-produced movie, "Pride of the Yankees." Released a year after Gehrig's death and co-starring Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright, Eleanor remembered in her memoir "My Luke and I" that she was reluctant to watch the production room rushes.
Eleanor feared that she'd be unable to bear the flood of memories that might overwhelm her. But she knew that to assure that Lou's story had been correctly handled, she'd have to watch. As things turned out, Eleanor recalled: "I didn't ask for one solitary deletion or addition. I accepted the picture exactly as it was made. That's how good I think it was."
Eleanor and Lou's romance - the love affair and eventual marriage between a strait-laced German immigrant family's son and an affluent Chicago debutant - was often described as improbable. And perhaps Eleanor and Lou's union was indeed unlikely.
But here's how Eleanor remembers her few years together with Lou: "I would not have traded two minutes of the joy and grief with that man for two decades of anything with another. Happy or sad, filled with great expectations or great frustrations, we had attained it for whatever brief instant that fate had decided."
On her 80th birthday, Eleanor died in New York's Presbyterian Hospital. The previous year she attended her last Old Timers' game, and from her wheelchair, rooted her beloved Yankees on.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at [email protected]