LOU GEHRIG: "The Iron Horse"
by Shelley McDonald
The promises of gold-lined streets and a better way of life lured many
Europeans away from the poverty and persecution in the Old World during the late 1800s. The quota of immigrants from Germany at that time was almost as large as that of all Eastern and Mediterranean Europe combined.
Among that favored group were Christina Flack and Heinrich Gehrig, who were to become the parents of Lou Gehrig, one of America's most famous professional baseball players.
Christina was born in 1881 in Wiltser,
Schleswig-Holstein, a province of pre-World War I Germany, near the German-Danish border. She emigrated to the United States in 1899. Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig was born in 1867 in Adelsheim, Baden, and came to America in
October of 1888. He originally spent some time in Chicago, but later settled in New York, where he met Christina who was fourteen years younger than he and stout as a keg. Like Heinrich, she was a Lutheran. They married
In Boston and Pittsburgh in 1903, young men picked up their bats in the first modern World Series while Heinrich Gehrig was hoisting a stein of beer at his favorite German saloon in the Yorkville section of
New York City where he and Christina had settled. Yorkville was a predominantly German neighborhood, but also contained Hungarian and Jewish families.
The Gehrigs had four children, but only the second-born survived
past infancy. This baby was born on the sticky evening of June 19, 1903, inside the family's cramped and airless apartment on Manhattan's upper east side. The chunky, blue-eyed boy, who weighed almost fourteen pounds at
birth, was named Heinrich Ludwig after his father. Americanized, his name was Henry Louis, or simply "Lou," as the husky boy came to be called.
Although life in the new land hadn't quite worked out as
advertised for the Gehrigs, they clung stubbornly to the American dream. The Gehrigs got by on probably no more than three or four hundred dollars a year, and Lou was raised in a dirt-poor household close to the poverty
level. Part of the problem was that Heinrich was either unable or unwilling to hold a steady job, preferring the camaraderies of the neighborhood saloon. To make ends meet, Christina had to work steadily, as a maid,
taking in the laundry of rich folks, and developing a reputation as a cook who specialized in authentic German dishes like whole roast pig, sauerbraten, roast goose and duck, and pickled eels. Lou helped out by
delivering the laundry his mother cleaned.
When Lou was five years old the Gehrigs moved from Yorkville to Washington Heights. Lou's playmates there were mostly of Irish, Hungarian, and German heritage. There he was
subjected to some teasing about his German roots and was known as "Heinie," "dumb Dutchman," or "Krauthead." However, as he grew older, his size and muscles made other kids realize that he
was not one to be teased.
Because Lou's father spent so much time in saloons and turnvereins (German gymnastic organizations), he spent little time with his son. However, as Lou started developing a powerful physique,
his father became determined to make him the strongest kid in the neighborhood. Heinrich even bought Lou a catcher's mitt one Christmas, the mitt was designed for a right hander, and Lou was destine to become a
left-handed first baseman.
The Gehrigs were eager to be known as Americans, but when alone or among their German friends, the family spoke mostly German. After World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, there was a
rising tide of anti-German sentiment in the United States. Even former president Teddy Roosevelt added to the prejudice by declaring those "hyphenated Americans" who attempted to be "both German and
American" were "not Americans at all, but traitors to America and tools and servants of Germany against America."
This anti-German hysteria became so widespread that German immigrants and their families
suffered indiscriminate beatings and job dismissals. Universities even canceled courses in German language, literature, and history. Sauerkraut became known as "liberty cabbage," and German measles were called
"liberty measles." The Germania Life Insurance Company became the Guardian Life Insurance Company, and the citizens of Berlin, Michigan, changed the town's name. Less than ten percent of New York's population
would admit to having German blood. The Gehrigs experienced much anguish during the war years because of their emotional attachment to Germany. When Lou's mom took a job as a cook at Columbia University's Sigma Nu
fraternity house, the students called Lou "Little Heinie." Since Lou was normally a shy boy, this type of treatment made him retreat further into his shell.
Lou graduated from grade school and turned
fourteen just a few months after the United States entered the war it had been trying for so long to ignore. Boys of Lou's economic and social background did not usually go to high school, but Lou's mom insisted that he
become more than a mere muscle worker and continue his education. In the fall of 1917, Lou started at Commerce High School where he was an average student who earned better-than-average grades because of his hard work.
He never missed a day of school, and between studying and working at odd jobs, Lou still found time to play high school sports which were more organized than the sandlot games to which he was accustomed. However,
because of his shyness, he needed a push.
Because some of the kids told Lou's bookkeeping teacher that he could hit a baseball a mile, she ordered him to show up for a school game. He recalled, "I went up to the
stadium on a streetcar. When I got there and saw so many people going into the field and hear all the cheering noise, I was so scared I couldn't see straight. I turned right around and got back on the streetcar and went
home. The next day the teacher threatened to flunk me if I didn't show up for the next game. So I went."
By his junior year in 1919, Lou's physique was developing impressively. He grew three inches in four
months and was close to his adult size of six feet and 200 pounds. He played football, baseball, and soccer and helped lead Commerce High to three straight soccer championships. In the spring of 1920, the baseball team
was selected to represent the city of New York in a special "national championship" game with Chicago's top high school team, Lane Tech. The game was to be played on June 26 at Wrigley field in Chicago.
However, Coach Harry Kane told all his players that each of them had to get their parents' approval to go to Chicago. Lou's parents were hesitant to allow him to make the trip. His mother argued, "This baseball is
a waste of time. It will never get you anywhere." The family discussion became heated at times and went on for several hours. Lou's dad agreed that baseball was a waste and a "peculiar game" for a young
man to spend so much time at. Finally, Lou was able to get his mother to consent, but only under the agreement that the school had to be responsible for Lou while he was in Chicago.
Lou and eight other players did
make the trip to Chicago on a train. Most of the boys were unsophisticated and had never been more than fifty miles from home. However, they were treated like kings. Even former president Howard Taft stopped by to wish
the team luck. On game day, ten thousand spectators were on hand. At the end of the eighth inning, Commerce had an 8-6 lead over Lane Tech. In the top of the ninth, the bases were full when Lou came up to bat. He got a
hold of the pitcher's second throw and sent it sailing over the right field fence onto the front porch of a house across the street. The huge grand slam sealed the 12-6 victory for the boys from New York and set the
In the previous major-league season, only 18 home runs were hit at Wrigley's Field. the Chicago Tribune reported, "Gehrig's blow would have made any big leaguer proud, yet it was walloped by
a boy who hasn't yet started to shave."
The next day Lou and his teammates returned to New York and were greeted by five thousand people and a band at Grand Central Station. Lou, who had just turned seventeen,
was singled out for special attention. The New York papers declared that this Gehrig boy was "the Babe Ruth of the schoolyards."
When Lou Gehrig graduated from Commerce High in 1921, potential athletic stars
were not pursued like they are today. In the twenties, college baseball was not a major sports activity. The major leagues depended mostly on a network of high and low minor leagues to train talent. However, because his
home run at Wrigley Field had been headlined in both Chicago and New
York, Gehrig's reputation had reached many athletic departments. However, Christina Gehrig was convinced that her son's greatest achievements would
come in a true profession such as engineering where German-Americans were making a name for themselves.
While Mrs. Gehrig had worked as a cook on a fraternity row at Columbia University, the family had become
acquainted with Bobby Watt, Columbia's graduate manager of athletics. Watt visited with Lou and his parents about obtaining a football scholarship to Columbia. His mom was ecstatic. To meet the high standards at
Columbia, Lou had to complete several months of extensive study and did pass the college board examinations. He then was awarded a football scholarship.
Lou did play football at Columbia in the spring of 1923, and
played his first and only season of baseball for Columbia. He starred on the mound and at the plate and was being watched closely by Paul Krichell, the chief scout of the new York Yankees. After that season, Lou signed
with the Yankees saying, "Mom and Pop have made enough sacrifices for me. Mom's been slaving to put a young ox like me through college. It's about time that I carry the load and take care of them."
Gehrig wept. To many foreign-born parents a career in professional athletics seemed to be a poor substitute for a real profession. Mrs. Gehrig never fully accepted the idea that education was secondary to games. Even
after her son became famous, she would proudly remind reporters that Lou Gehrig had once been a college man.
From 1923 until 1939, Lou Gehrig played first base for the New York Yankees. Even though he was many times
overshadowed by Babe Ruth, his popular teammate, Gehrig was one of the most important players of the Yankees. He led the American League in runs batted in five times and
broke the league record in 1931 by batting in 184 runs. Gehrig was voted the league's most valuable player in 1927 and 1936. During his career, he also hit 23 grand slams, a major league record. Gehrig was known as the
Iron Horse because he established a record for the number of consecutive games played by a professional baseball player, appearing in 2130 consecutive games from 1925 to 1939. His record was broken in 1995 by Cal
Ripkin, Jr., of the Baltimore Orioles.
Lou Gehrig was stricken with the spinal disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and was forced to retire from baseball early in the 1939 season. ALS has come to be known as
Lou Gehrig's disease. Gehrig was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 and died from ALS in 1941.
Lou Gehrig's life, from the poor German boy in Yorkville to the famous star playing America's favorite
pastime, illustrates the dream pursued by so many immigrants searching for a better life in the New World.
Bibliography: Bak, Richard. Lou Gehrig. Dallas: Taylor Publishing Co., 1995. "Gehrig,
Lou." Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia, 1993-1996. Robinson, Ray, Iron Horse. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990.
Shelley McDonald won first place in the 1996 German-American Day Essay Contest with the
theme: "The German Immigration to America." The contest is sponsored every year by the Indiana German Heritage Society. Shelley is an 11th grade student at Hamilton Southeastern H.S., Fishers, IN and her
German teacher is Frau Asons.