Jonathan Eig's Luckiest Man may be one of the best baseball books written. It is right up there with Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Wait Till Next Year, and Red Smith's On Baseball. Heavily researched in a seemingly successful effort to separate mythology from fact, this is no hagiography. Henry Louis Gehrig is presented, warts and all.
Modern baseball players need to read this book (or, have it read to them) and learn something about integrity, hard work, and sportsmanship. As we read daily about the steroid controversy in baseball, this is a timely biography of one of baseball's greatest players and sportsmen.
Even the casual fan knows how this story ends. Begin then, at the end, page 356, and read of Gehrig's death and funeral. Follow with the "Epilogue" and then to Chapter 23, "Luckiest Man." Then, start at the beginning and learn how Gehrig got to the pinnacle of success, despite incredible shyness and emotional distance from nearly everyone around him.
Gehrig's farewell speech is short, only 277 words long. The newsreel contains only the first 4 sentences. No one wrote the speech verbatim at the time, but sportswriters quickly realized its significance. Dan Daniel called it "the most dramatic demonstration in the annals of sport." The great Shirley Povich summed up its impact, "I saw strong men weep this afternoon."
But, it was Richards Vidmar who reported the significance of Gehrig's passing from the game. Lou Gehrig Day honored "a truly great sportsman who could take his triumphs with sincere modesty and could face tragedy with a smile….Lou Gehrig …has stood for something finer than merely a great baseball player - that he stood for everything that makes sports important in the American scene." Gehrig remains the only player elected to the Hall of Fame in the same year he retired.
The big, powerful Gehrig came along at just the right time. Babe Ruth had changed the paradigm of baseball. It was moving rapidly from hit and run to the day of the homerun. In 1923, when Gehrig was signed to a contract, Yankee Stadium was new and huge, seating nearly 60,000 with plans for expansion. The first radio broadcast (little more than newspaper accounts on radio) had occurred just two years earlier. But in '23 Graham McNamee became the first color commentator. He did not always know exactly what he was talking about, but he brought a new sense of excitement to the games, and fans could now walk down the streets of New York and listen to the games through the open windows.
As you might expect, Luckiest Man contains stories of baseball lore. The 1929 Yankees were the first team to put numbers on the back of their uniforms. Eig reports that this was an immensely controversial move in baseball since most people felt the players should be identified by and play for the name on the front of the jersey, the team's name. The Yankees, with no precedent to rely on, assigned numbers in anticipation of the order in which players would bat. Ruth was number 3, Gehrig was 4; Durocher was 7.
Eig writes that the most famous story in baseball is pure myth. Baseball mythology says that the Yankees' first baseman, Wally Pipp, had a headache one day. Manager Miller Huggins put Gehrig in and he stayed in for 14 years. The truth is that Pipp, even though he recognized that his career was threatened by the young and powerful Gehrig, did all he could to help him with the mechanics of fielding his position in spring training and during the season. When the 1925 season got underway, Pipp and other veterans were simply not performing. On June 1, Gehrig came in late in the game to pinch hit. It was the last time he would ever pinch hit. The next day, Huggins benched three starters, including Pipp. Pipp did not have a headache that day, although he did one month later when he was beaned in batting practice and fractured his skull. The Yankees traded him at the end of the year and he played only three more years. Nevertheless, he continued to tell the "headache" story for years to come. Even his children admitted that he didn't have headaches, that he used the story, perhaps, to assuage his embarrassment at losing his spot to such a young athlete.