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‘Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig’ by Jonathan Eig Details a Tragic, Inspirational Story

Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. Jonathan Eig.

Henry Louis Gehrig was born in New York City on June 19, 1903. His parents, immigrants from Germany, lived in a tenement and struggled to make ends meet. Gehrig went to Columbia University on a sports scholarship. While most of the students came from wealthy families and could do what they wanted after class, Gehrig went to the Sigma Nu fraternity building to help his mother (who was employed there) clear tables and wash dishes. He left as a sophomore upon signing a contract with the New York Yankees and played first base for them from 1923 until 1939.

Lou Gehrig

By Pacific and Atlantic Photos, Inc – Heritage Auctions, Public Domain

Most famous for his consecutive game streak, he had a lifetime batting average of .340, 2,721 hits, 534 doubles, 163 triples, and 493 home runs. He retired midway through the 1939 season when his disease, ALS, became too much even for the Iron Horse. He died two years later, on June 2, 1941. He was 38 years old.

Most biographies of Lou Gehrig gloss over the final year of his life, when ALS had sapped away all of his strength, leaving him mentally unimpaired but confined to his bed, unable to move, to feed himself, or even speak. In Luckiest Man, author Jonathan Eig spends the first half of the book telling us about the life of Gehrig, and the second half telling us about his death. It makes for a powerful book.

Eig tells the story from “primary materials: newspapers, periodicals, oral histories, government records, church registers, newsreel footage, photographs, private letters and interviews.” In addition to all the old standbys, Eig presents what other authors have not had – the letters of Gehrig to his primary physician, Dr. Paul O’Leary of the Mayo Clinic.

Eig tells us in his Notes: “Nothing here is invented or interpreted.”

That’s good in one sense – I dislike it when biographers invent dialog, but the fact that Eig also interprets nothing at times makes for dryness – he makes a statement and you expect him to amplify on it but he rarely does. At times it appears as if he’s merely reciting statistics…not putting any of himself into the work.

It’s impossible to get everything into one book, and while Eig covers new ground with his account of Gehrig’s final year, there are some things left out. He tells of Gehrig’s contract negotiations, for example, during the same year that rookie Joe DiMaggio came into the league – but he doesn’t mention that Gehrig had an agent (who took 30%).

Eig also does do some interpreting. In the caption for the photograph of Babe Ruth hugging Gehrig during his retirement ceremony, for example, he says: “Gehrig appeared less than thrilled when the Babe moved in for a hug – and a photo opportunity. For years the men had not spoken to each other.”

Other authors have interpreted this differently. In 1938 ALS was an unknown disease – no one really knew how it was contracted….and people, especially some of his teammates, were afraid to touch Gehrig. Ruth actually hugging him made a statement of a different kind.

This book also presents the full text of Gehrig’s farewell speech (on pg. 317), which is as moving now as it was then. Unfortunately, only four lines of the speech still exist in newsreel footage…the ‘luckiest man’ sentence is the one that is replayed…how much more powerful is the entire text.

By its very nature, this is not a portrait of Gehrig, but rather a series of sketches.

I might have had a tough break; but I have an awful lot to live for. Lou Gehrig

What was Gehrig’s relationship with his mother? She dominated his life (and that of her husband, a meek, seemingly ineffectual man) for the first thirty years of his life.

Then he got married, and his wife seemed to take over that role in his life. Did Gehrig really want to become an actor, or did his wife push him into it? He auditioned for the role of Tarzan, and took six-guns in hand to try for a role in Rawhide.

His wife and mother never got along, and their relationship only deteriorated after his illness took hold, and got no better after his death. According to Eig, Eleanor Gehrig actually threatened to have her parents-in-law deported (as enemy aliens) if they continued to insist on receiving money from Gehrig’s estate.

Eig explores Gehrig’s relationship with Babe Ruth, and to a lesser extent that of Joe DiMaggio and the rest of his teammates.

Writers about Gehrig consistently state that he was “overshadowed” by Ruth and, eventually Dimaggio. As Eig points out, this was mostly due to the machinations of the press and the Yankee front office who wanted maximum publicity for the team.

Lou Gehrig gave his all at the game he loved, and off the field was a complex and multi-faceted man. His story is a tragic but ultimately inspirational one.

Luckiest Man makes an excellent addition to the library of anyone who loves baseball, biographies, and Lou Gehrig.

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