His roots are pure-German. His father was baptized Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig somewhere in the parameters of Baden, Germany,
in 1867. As most young Europeans did, Heinrich immigrated to America. He was 21 when he arrived, going first to Chicago where
he stayed a bit, then he settled in New York City. There he met a woman 14 years younger. Her name was Christina Flack, and
she had arrived in New York City from Schleswig-Holstein in 1899. The two met and fell as much in love as two misplaced and
needy German expatriates could. Besides their nationality and situation, they shared the same religion, Lutheranism. They
decided to have a go at it and married in 1900.
By 1904 they had brought four children into the world. Anna was born in 1902. The first boy, named after his father, was
born in 1903. Sophie came along in 1904. Soon after, and second son was born, whose name has been lost in history. Of the
four, only the second, the boy named after his father, survived. Anna died in 1905; Sophie in 1904, from diphtheria; and the
youngest died before his name could be remembered beyond the family.
This surviving child, Heinrich Ludwig, became the cherished one. He was born, more specifically, on June 19, 1903, in the
lower-mid class section of Yorkville, Manhattan. Though the majority of the neighborhood was German-immigrant families, the
junior Heinrich was subject to Americanization almost immediately. His name, for instance, changed to Henry Louis, and he
would grow up responding to the name Lou. He was the sole hope for the Gehrig name to be associated with success in America.
Because of this, he was pushed to try hard and harder from the first time he could roll over.
"He's the only big egg I have in my basket," Mom Gehrig said of her son. "He's the only one of four who lived, so I want
him to have the best."
That he did, as far as she could provide. It wasn't easy providing for a chunk of a boy who weighed in at over 14 pounds
at birth. "I can say," Mom said, "he had a terrible appetite from the first time he saw daylight." Regardless, she did her
best to keep her blue-eyed, blonde-mopped boy in as decent shape as possible.
The Gehrig family never knew financial freedom while Gehrig was still in school. Pop was prone to illness and couldn't
work much of the time. Mom struggled to fill in the gap by working non-stop from sunrise to sunset. When he was old enough
to walk on stairs, Gehrig helped his mother deliver laundry she had taken in for the extra money. In this way, Gehrig learned
the vitality of laborious work and long, long hours for pay that should never be contested because of its value.
He also learned the needlessness of material possessions. The family could rarely afford new clothes, including winter
garments such as an overcoat and hat. Throughout his childhood, Gehrig had neither an overcoat nor a hat and quickly became
accustomed to doing without them (from habit, he rarely wore either as an adult).
Inside the tiny Gehrig apartment, Old World German traditions governed. All family members spoke German fluently. Pop was
head of household; his word was law. Mom prepared authentic German meals both as a means to feed her family and as a means
to earn extra money from those willing to pay for it. (Mom's pickled eels, a German delicacy, were often rumored to be the
source of Gehrig's power hitting).
All summed up, Gehrig was a walking target for child ridicule - he was poor, barely dressed, and his first words were German.
Things got worse for him when the family moved to Washington Heights when he was 5. Washington Heights had a heavy mix of
nationalities including Irish and Hungarian. His German inflection was even more pronounced in such company. The other kids
dubbed him with nicknames such as "dumb Dutchman" and "Little Heinie."
On the good side, the new home was a skip away from the New York Highlanders' (to be known as Yankees) home. Gehrig was
a huge fan of baseball; he collected the baseball cards that came with his father's Sweet Caporal cigarettes.
In the new, less-friendly neighborhood, Gehrig became play-shy. But one day, with the help of an older boy, he managed
to edge his way in on a sandlot baseball game. He was immediately hooked on playing. If the other boys wouldn't let him play
in a baseball game, he found any sandlot or alley game to play, right down to marbles. Baseball remained his overall favorite.
He kept at it, asking to play in every game. If he made a mistake, which he often did, the other boys would groan. The
biggest problem he had was his bucket-foot habit, meaning he would steap back, away from the pitch. He wasn't broken
of this habit until college. When the other boys groaned, he would only grin shyly and kept trying harder, a habit of
which he would never be broken.
Pop attempted to give his approval of Gehrig's play by giving him a baseball glove one Christmas. Unfortunately, Pop did
not understand baseball or anything associated with it. Instead of a glove, Pop surprised his son on Christmas morning with
a catcher's mitt for a right-hander (Gehrig was left-handed). No matter; always insistent, Gehrig learned how to adjust his
play to accommodate using his right-hander mitt. Best of all, the mitt actually got Gehrig into every sandlot game because
very few of the players had any type of glove and they were willing to barter. With constant play and practice, he was good
enough to play on the school teams.
He attended Public School 132 at 183rd Street and Wadsworth Avenue. He was an average performer in academics; on the fields
is where he made his killing. Every game the school offered, he played: track (relay and shot-put), football (tackle and running
back). In his free time he played on the Oval Team in the Park Department Baseball League. By the time he reached seventh
grade, he was one of the best and strongest athletes in PS 132.
His quickly developing athletic ability was virtually the only bright spot in his life. Home life was slowly getting worse.
The more he grew, the more his old, tattered clothes didn't fit and the more his appetite dwindled the family food money.
Usually his parents could not afford to give him lunch money so he ate a large dinner and munched an apple for lunch break,
sometimes sharing his apple with friend Ed Rosenthal.
Gehrig had little time to concern himself too much with his problems, though. His schedule was demanding - school, studies,
and work every day. His situation was very similar to the other boys' in his neighborhood. If they ever had a chance to fit
in a sandlot game, it was in the morning before school. Fanatical about baseball and other sports, Gehrig willingly woke up
early, usually around 5:30, to squeeze in a during-dawn game with the other boys.
He had a close circle of friends with whom he played and caused mischief, as any group of boys would. Most of the mischief
was relatively harmless, such as stealing a ride on trolley cars and skinny dipping in the Hudson on a particularly hot day
(in both incidents, the boys were caught by the cops). Gehrig participated fully in the mischievous behavior. In fact, one
scheme was his brainchild. It involved a policeman the boys had nicknamed Beanpole because of his tall, lanky body. Beanpole
would often break up innocent early morning sandlot games because they, supposedly, were being too loud. After a while, the
boys grew irritated with Beanpole and decided to seek revenge. It was Gehrig who came up with the idea of tricking Beanpole
into a booby trap.
The boys made a dummy and suspended it from a chimney on a rooftop, so as to make it look like a man had hung himself.
Near the threshold to the roof, the boys strung a thin wire about a foot off the rooftop. While his buddies hid on the roof,
Gehrig found Beanpole and told him there was a dead man on the roof. Beanpole knew Gehrig and his family, so he did not suspect
the boy from a authority-respecting background was baiting him. Poor Beanpole didn't have a chance; he fell face-first onto
the roof, a fool made by a bunch of pranksters.
Mom heard about the trick on Beanpole and was furious, and she convinced that her son was headed for a life of
crime. Pop wasn't far behind, though he may have had to choke down giggles (he was a sucker for banana-peel-slip kind of humor).
Let it be said that Pop was not more easy-going than Mom. For instance, when Gehrig was 11, he was at his buddies' favorite
swimming spot in the Hudson River at 181st Street. Whatever his motivation, he decided to swim the mile-wide river, from the
New York to the New Jersey side and back again. Pop boxed his son's ears for the stunt.
Within a year, Pop was taking Gehrig to the local turnverein - a gym/social club that centered on traditional German gymnastics.
Pop's thought was that he could not only get his son off the street but also build his coordination and muscle mass. Meat
had sprouted like weeds on Gehrig's body by the time he was 12, but the coordination and tone did not come naturally. Gehrig's
childhood best friend, Mike Sesit, attended the turnverein with him. "Lou was about 158 pounds then," Sesit said, "mostly
belly and ass."
For months, Gehrig practiced the gymnastics, which were designed to improve coordination and build muscle. Though he did
blossom and bulge, there was something odd about him - the coordination did not improve as fast as his tone. Sometimes he
would have trouble controlling his limbs and complain of sharp pains in his back and legs. "His body behaved as if it were
drunk," Sesit said. This lack of finite coordination with infinite muscles continued through Gehrig's rookie year with the
Pop was thrilled to see his son rippling, but Mom insisted that the boy concentrate just as much on his schoolwork. From
his first school day, she had pushed him to succeed in academics. She wanted him to be like his uncle, the engineer, back
in Germany, and she had made it known that he was going to high school, which was rare for boys in Gehrig's situation. On
top of that, she wanted him to go to college, an almost unheard-of feat for their social class.
Demonstrating the same seemingly innate fanaticism as his mother, Gehrig pursued the goals she set for him. So much so
that he made it a point to never miss a day of school. It was his responsibility, he thought, to be at school. In second grade,
Gehrig came down with a severe case of the flu/borderline pneumonia. Mom told him to stay home while she and Pop went to work.
But as soon as they left, Gehrig got dressed and trudged to school, fever sweat drenching his clothes. The teacher told him
to go back home. Gehrig refused, so the teacher took him down to the principal. Gehrig explained that he didn't want to break
his perfect attendance record. The principal was struck by the youngster's concern, and he agreed to count Gehrig present
that day on the condition that Gehrig would go back home immediately. (A same sort of trick was used during his consecutive
games streak when he caught a cold in his back).
Gehrig graduated from grammar school at the age of 14. Normally a boy of his age and condition would go for his working
papers to help support the family. The Gehrig household definitely needed an extra breadwinner. Pop was still consistently
out of work and Mom's pay was barely enough. Taking all of this into consideration, Gehrig offered to get his working papers
instead of going to high school. Mom wouldn't hear of it. That's how stubborn she was. Never mind the money, she told him
and insisted that school would get him farther than being a newsy or stock boy.
All of his childhood had been lived in poverty and had caused the development of a mini-war, Mom and Gehrig against Pop.
Two were working themselves raw to get farther in life and one was not helping all that much and spending what little there
was on cigarettes, cards, and beer at the tavern. After years of this pattern, Mom and Gehrig tended to side with each other
while Pop was a bit disconnected.
A perfect illustration of this mini-war is the time Mom swiped Pop's money and spent it spontaneously just as he had been
doing to her. Pop had come in late one night with $17 in pinochle winnings - a significant pot. After he collapsed on the
bed, Mom got up and put the money into her own hiding place. The next day she took her son and snuck off to Coney Island where
the two blew the cash on junk food, carnival rides, and games. This was the closest Gehrig ever got to a vacation during childhood.
When Pop realized his pockets were empty, he instinctively knew what Mom had done. Ashamed, he vowed to not go drinking and
gambling again. Two weeks later he revoked that vow. He was never a drunk; he just simply didn't have the esteem to push himself
to do well all the time like Mom could.
It's no surprise that money was always a dominating worry Gehrig carried with him. His Yankee teammates used to tease him
that he kept the first dollar he ever earned. It's unknown if he really did, but in his estate there was a postal savings
certificate dated October 1, 1914 (his 11th year) for the amount of $1.00.
It's also no surprise that Gehrig grew a thick shell of insecurity and fear of irresponsibility that no one, not even his
future wife, could completely shatter.
Now check out High School Hero Gehrig