Captain courageous

When the news came that Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees shortstop and team captain, would retire at the end of the season, our thoughts turned to another Yankee captain who carried himself with quiet grace – “The Iron Horse” and onetime New Rochelle resident Lou Gehrig.

“Jeter has always struck me as the heir to Gehrig,” says Jonathan Eig, the former Spring Valley resident who is the author of “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig” (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

What Jeter and Gehrig (1903-41) have in common, Eig says, is that both let their considerable professional accomplishments and charitable work do the talking for them, rather than their personal lives, which remained scandal-free.

“We forget that the Yankees were this wild, Rabelaisian team,” says Eig, who got his journalistic start as a paperboy for the Rockland Journal-News and later an intern for the then Gannett Westchester Rockland Newspapers in White Plains. “Gehrig made them upstanding.”

Similarly, Eig says, “Jeter has taken a corporate approach to managing his image, and that’s a smart thing to do.”

Today, however, Gehrig is perhaps best known to the public for the disease that bears his name, technically called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. In recent years, research has suggested that Gehrig may not have died of ALS but of a similar degenerative motor-neuron disorder like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is caused by concussions and repeated sub-concussive experiences that occur in such sports as boxing, football, soccer and steeplechase.

Unlike ALS, CTE affects the mind as well as the body. It’s characterized by high levels of certain proteins in the brain and spinal cord that would not have been detected in the days of Gehrig, who sustained any number of concussions and sub-concussions first as a Manhattan youth and Columbia University engineering student playing baseball and football and then as a Hartford minor leaguer and Bronx Bomber (1923-39).

Eig remains skeptical of the cause of death. “Gehrig’s symptoms are classic ALS, and he was examined by the leading authorities of the time, including those at the Mayo Clinic. If his disease was mimicking something else, it was a hell of a mimicking.”

But Eig notes that we will never be 100 percent certain of Gehrig’s cause of death. He was cremated and buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla. He and his wife – the former Eleanor Grace Twitchell, daughter of Chicago parks commissioner Frank Twitchell – had no children. And Gehrig’s siblings died young.

“It’s interesting to consider the possibility of whether his ALS resulted from the concussions he sustained playing baseball and football,” Eig says. It’s an observation given credence by the April 2012 death of semi-pro soccer player Patrick Grange, who died from ALS at age 29 and suffered a number of concussions over his years of playing the sport.

Every man’s strength is, in a sense, his weakness. What made Gehrig ripe for taking hits and being beaned was his raw power and speed, the sheer durability that earned him the nickname “The Iron Horse.” Indeed, his record of most consecutive games played (2,130) stood for 56 years before being broken by Baltimore Orioles’ shortstop and third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995.

But Gehrig’s strength was as much psychological as physical. Shy by nature, he was devoted to his mother, Christina, a hard-working, disciplined German immigrant. “If there were a hall of fame of mama’s boys,” Eig says, “he would’ve been elected on the first ballot.”

Yet Gehrig was still very much his own man. When he joined the Yankees, Eig says, “he knew he didn’t fit in, but he was secure enough in himself to find his own way.”

That way led to teammate and megastar Babe Ruth, who was as outgoing and roguish as Gehrig was reserved, particularly with the ladies. Still, they managed to form a one-two punch that was at the heart of what many consider the greatest lineup ever – the 1927 Yanks, known as “Murderers’ Row.” The Babe batted third; Lou, fourth. (Hence their uniform numbers.)

Perhaps because they were so complementary, Ruth and Gehrig got along well.

“I think they were genuinely friends,” Eig says. “Gehrig idolized the Babe in the beginning, even if he didn’t want to be like that. There was a brotherly relationship … but it was complicated by Eleanor.”

She and Gehrig married in 1933 in New Rochelle and set up house at 5 Circuit Road after an uncomfortable stay at the Gehrig family home on Meadow Lane. A sophisticated socialite, Eleanor had a reputation for dating Yankees, including the Babe. And that, Eig says, is what led to the rift. (In her book “My Luke and I,” Eleanor attributes the fallout to Ma Gehrig, with whom she didn’t get along, and her interference in the way Ruth and wife Claire brought up daughter Dorothy.)

But when Gehrig died June 2, 1941, at the couple’s new home in Riverdale, Babe and Claire were among the first to console Eleanor. The Babe was, after all, Eig says, a big kid who couldn’t hold a grudge.

For Gehrig, death arrived 16 years to the day that he famously replaced the declining Wally Pipp at first base and almost two years to the day he retired, on the Fourth of July. It remains one of the most famous retirement days in American history with an embrace by old teammate Ruth, tributes by New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Postmaster General James Farley, an emotional address by fatherly team manager Joe McCarthy and choked-back tears from sportswriters and fans alike.

Gehrig’s graceful farewell – filled with gratitude and optimism in the face of a terrifying prospect – is familiar to anyone who has seen the poignant “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942), a film that Eig says is not without its flaws.

“My biggest criticism is that Eleanor took over. She became the hero and Lou was made into a wimp, when he was no pushover.”

The film’s farewell uses portions of Gehrig’s speech that bear repeating.

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Gehrig went on to acknowledge everyone from the ground crew to his wife before adding, “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.”

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