How Baseball Players Became Celebrities 

The 1927 Yankees have been called the greatest team in baseball history. With Ruth hitting third and Gehrig cleanup, the Yankees won a hundred and ten games, and lost only forty-four. Ruth batted .356 and hit sixty home runs, a single-season record that lasted for thirty-four years and has been surpassed by only four men, three of whom are widely believed to have been jacked up on steroids. Gehrig hit .373, with forty-seven homers and a hundred and seventy-three runs batted in—a record for R.B.I.s at the time and not an easy thing to do when the man ahead of you hits sixty home runs. In the World Series, the Yankees beat the Pirates in four straight.

Gehrig idolized Ruth as a ballplayer, and Ruth was easy to get along with. They travelled together, played bridge together, and barnstormed together. They had both started out as pitchers—Gehrig pitched in college, but Ruth won ninety-four games in his big-league career and had a lifetime E.R.A. of 2.28, seventeenth on the all-time list—and they sometimes pitched to each other in exhibition games. Ruth was often a guest for dinner at Gehrig’s house.

But they were polar opposites. Ruth was all flamboyance and swagger. He bought expensive cars and wrecked them. He wore raccoon coats and smoked big cigars. He gambled and caroused. His annual contract negotiations were big news. He was famous to the public for his appetite for food and drink; he was famous to his teammates for his appetite for sex. He made no secret of it. Fred Lieb, who covered the Yankees, wrote, “His phallus and home-run bat were his prize possessions, in that order.”

On road trips, Ruth would be out all night partying, getting back to the hotel at dawn. “I don’t room with Babe Ruth,” his assigned roommate on one trip, Ping Bodie, is supposed to have said. “I room with his suitcase.” The team, in exasperation, once hired a detective to follow him around one night when the Yankees were in Chicago. The detective reported back that Ruth had been with six women.

It had no effect on his play. “The Babe was always doing something,” Marshall Hunt, a reporter who covered Ruth year-round for the Daily News, recalled. “Perpetual motion. . . . I don’t think I ever saw him sitting around.” The key to Babe Ruth, though, was this: everybody loved him. “God, we liked that big son of a bitch,” Waite Hoyt, the ace of the 1927 Yankees team, said. “He was a constant source of joy.”

Everybody respected Lou Gehrig. They did not love him. He was good-natured but distant. He had a distinctly un-Jazz Age persona. “This sturdy and serious lad takes copybook maxims as his guides in life and lives up to them,” a Times columnist wrote after the Yankees won the Series in 1927. “ ‘Strive and succeed.’ ‘Early to bed, and early to rise.’ ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ ‘Labor conquers everything.’ And all the rest of them.”

Ruth had a gift for baseball. He was not only the best power hitter on the Yankees; he was also the best bunter. When he played the outfield, he never threw to the wrong base. Those were things Gehrig had to work at. Fielding was a challenge. Just figuring out which foot to put on the bag (he played first base, the traditional position for oversized sluggers with limited defensive skills) was a challenge. “He was one of the dumbest players I’ve ever seen,” Miller Huggins, Gehrig’s first Yankee manager, said. “But he’s got one great virtue that will make him: he never makes the same mistake twice.”

“Ruth has the mind of a fifteen-year-old,” the president of the American League once said in frustration during some Ruthian commotion. Gehrig was a case of arrested development, too, but in a different way. Until 1933, when he turned thirty, he lived with his parents. He brought his mother to spring training. When the team was on the road, he would leave the hotel after dark and walk the streets by himself so his teammates would think he had plans. He usually signed whatever contract the Yankees sent him. In 1927, the year he was the American League M.V.P., his salary was eight thousand dollars. The following year, it was raised to twenty-five thousand. Ruth was making seventy.

In short, Gehrig was a Golden Age anomaly. In 1929, The New Yorker ran a profile of him, with the interesting title “The Little Heinie.” “Lou Gehrig,” it began, “has accidentally got himself into a class with Babe Ruth and Dempsey and other beetle-browed, self-conscious sluggers who are the heroes of our nation. This is ridiculous—he is not fitted in any way to have a public.” The reporter asked Gehrig if he planned to get married. “My mother makes a home comfortable enough for me,” he said. Unlike Ruth and Dempsey and the rest of the Golden Age stars, Gehrig did not want attention, and this was because, unlike the others, he did not need attention. He stayed in his lane. He liked being boring.

Part of the mythology of American sports in that era was that it was a means of social mobility, a way for the children of farmhands and factory workers to make their way into the middle class, and even, for special talents, to acquire wealth and celebrity. In the case of baseball, at least, the myth was mostly a myth. Ballplayers in Gehrig and Ruth’s time came from families that were relatively well off. Steven Riess, in “Touching Base,” a study of the sport in the early years of the twentieth century, reported that, of players active between 1900 and 1919, only eleven per cent had fathers who were unskilled or semi-skilled laborers, even though forty-five per cent of workers nationwide were semi-skilled or unskilled. Ten per cent had fathers who were professionals, against three per cent in the population as a whole.

But the myth was true for some of the Golden Age stars, Ruth and Gehrig among them. When Ruth was seven years old, his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible, and Wayward Boys, in Baltimore, basically a reform school run by brothers of the Order of St. Francis Xavier, and he spent most of the next dozen years there. It’s where he learned to play baseball. “I didn’t have a thing till I was eighteen years old, not a bite,” he said years later, when he was living the high life. “Now it’s bustin’ out all over.”

Gehrig’s parents were German immigrants. His father was a metalworker who was often unemployed. The family was held together by Gehrig’s mother, Christina, a dynamo who cooked, cleaned, and did laundry to support the family, and who took over the life of Lou, her only surviving child. They lived in Yorkville, in upper Manhattan, and were poor even by the standards of the neighborhood. They later moved to Washington Heights. Lou’s nickname at school was Fat.

The Gehrigs spoke German at home; Lou did not learn English until he was five. (German was also the language in Ruth’s house, and he spoke some German when he came over for dinner.) Gehrig got the attention of the sports world when he was in high school, after hitting a tape-measure home run at Cubs Park, in Chicago, where Gehrig’s team, New York City’s best, had gone to play Chicago’s best. That was in 1920, the year Ruth came to the Yankees.

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