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Gehrig does his tours in the minors

youngyank.jpg
Gehrig soon after signing a Yankee contract.

In the summer of 1923, Lou Gehrig was a sophomore at Columbia University, was finishing up his first baseball season with the Lions, and still had ambition to make his mother proud by becoming an engineer. He was what his mother had worked the skin off her knuckles for - a collegian. Alas, it took merely one question from a Yankee scout to break stone.

"How would you like to play with the Yankees?" was Paul Krichell's question of Gehrig. Flabbergasted, the kid could only sputter out, "Are you serious?"

Very serious. For less than 24 hours Gehrig debated whether to stay at Columbia and fulfill his mother's wishes or leave for a high-paying career. "Mom and Dad have made enough sacrifices for me," Gehrig reasoned. "Mom's been slaving to put a young ox like me through college. It's about time that I carry the load and take care of them."

He was awarded a $1,500 signing bonus and used most of it to pay off his parents' bills. With what was left he sent them on their first vacation. Mom was at first embittered by her son leaving Columbia, but she understood that he was trying to provide for her.

The "young ox" reported to Yankee Stadium for his first professional batting practice. The ox, at 20 years of age, stood 6'1" and weighed 190 pounds. With his power at the plate, he was a good fit with the likes of Babe Ruth. Miller Huggins, the Yankees manager, gave Gehrig a turn in the batting cage, telling him to pick up any bat on his way to the plate. The first bat Gehrig picked up he decided to swing with, not knowing it was Ruth's favorite, a burly hunk of a bat. After missing a few, Gehrig found the grove and began knocking the ball around the yard like a true pro. A few of his college classmates had come to the stadium that day to cheer him on, yelling encouragement from the stands, much to his ever-lingering self-consciousness.

Waite Hoyt said of Gehrig's performance, "We all knew that he was a big league ball player in the making. Nobody could miss on him." The press got wind of the show and hailed Gehrig as the next Babe Ruth and other such like-a-deity predictions that put a lot of pressure on a kid.

Though he was good with a bat, he still lacked pro defensive skills. So Huggins sent him to the Yankees' Eastern (minor) League team in Hartford, CT, for what he called "seasoning." "In those days," Eleanor, Gehrig's future wife, would say, "the minor leagues were better and more important in baseball than they are now, but they were still a long way from Broadway."

Whether it was homesickness or a fear that he would not live up to the press' pressuring laud, Gehrig fell into a long-standing slump at Hartford. The slump was so bad it began to affect his fielding; he would foul up plays he could otherwise make with a handicap. It also affected his common sense. At one point he believed playing with a hangover or a buzz cured slumps, and he practiced this theorem for two weeks before the Hartford manager, Pat O'Connor, set him straight (for the full story read Gehrig the Drunk). But the slump persisted after Gehrig sobered up. O'Connor finally sent a telegram to the Yankees office saying, "Proceed at once to Hartford. Gehrig in a bad slump. Talk to him."


Paul Krichell was sent to Hartford to review Gehrig's playing. "He had his chin on his chest all afternoon," Krichell said. Seeing a familiar face in a strange city seemed to be exactly what Gehrig needed; Krichell said that Gehrig lit up instantly when he saw the Yankee scout.

After a little chat, Krichell discovered that Gehrig was a perfectionist - he expected to hit every day, every at-bat. Krichell explained that even a .400 hitter still misses 6 out of 10 times; it was expected that there will be days, perhaps even weeks, when a hitter will not have top performances. That was enough for Gehrig, a simple reassurance that imperfection was acceptable. And because he was relaxed in the box, he began to hit like he was already a legend. In 7 days he pounded 18 home runs, a record pace in the Eastern League. "Lefty Lou Gehrig at present ratio would hit 57 home runs in full season," one local paper reported. By the end of the season, Gehrig had hit 24 home runs.

Off the field, Gehrig learned more life lessons. His roommate, Harry Hesse, set him up with a girl. Hesse thought that may have very well been Gehrig's first date. Though rarely one to be rambunctious, Gehrig did let loose every now and again. One night a drunk teammate came into Gehrig and Hesse's room looking to horse around, right when the boys had just begun to sleep. The teammate made the mistake of choosing to mess with Gehrig. By the time Hesse turned on the light, Gehrig had the drunk in a scissor lock around the waist. Hesse screamed at Gehrig to let go, noticing the kid's face was turning blue. Gehrig had not known his own strength, and Hesse, in telling the story later in life, said, "Gehrig was between tears and panic." The kid had lost consciousness, and it took Hesse 10 minutes to bring the kid back. "He hadn't meant to hurt the guy," Hesse said, "he'd just tried to keep him from getting too wild." From that episode, Gehrig learned exactly how essential it was to be a gentle giant.

When Hartford's season ended, Gehrig went back home to Mom and Pop and waited out the winter. He was told to tag along to New Orleans for the Yankees' spring training in February 1924. All he had in his wallet was $14 (though some say it was only $12) to last him the 6 weeks of training. Many of the more well-off veterans enjoyed night after night of rebel rousing at expensive restaurants and cab rides to the practice field. Gehrig, on the other hand, walked between the field and hotel and spent most of his nights walking around the city alone or snug in his room with a book. It didn't seem odd to his teammates that he was not socializing; anyone could pass his behavior off as shyness or rookie intimidation. But Benny Bengough, Gehrig's roommate and fellow rookie, understood fully. He too was in dire straights.

The two boys decided the only way out of the mess was to find themselves a side job. Gehrig mentioned that he had passed by a fancy restaurant close to the hotel and suggested they go there to get a night's work as waiters. From years of experience in helping Mom clean house and feed a Columbia University fraternity, Gehrig had plenty of tips ready for his buddy on serving. But the plan was shattered when they saw a large group of the Yankees living it up at one of the tables. The boys left the restaurant still broke and disconsolate.

Sportswriter Dan Daniel (who would later be the first to recognize Gehrig's consecutive games streak) noticed Gehrig's glum demeanor. Gehrig confessed to him that he was running out of money. "If you're broke, go see Huggins," Daniel insisted.

"Oh, I couldn't do that," Gehrig murmured, to shy to bring up something like money, an issue he would always be insecure about, with a Yankees representative. Daniel, fond of the ox, went to Huggins in his stead. Huggins gave Gehrig a $100 advance and a fatherly lecture on speaking up if something was wrong. Until Huggins died, he considered Gehrig to be like a son and would always be quick to help him even when Gehrig thought he didn't need help.

Camp broke and the Yankees toured north, taking their promising green hand along. Gehrig played the first 10 games, amassed 12 at-bats with an impressive .500 batting average. And then Huggins gave him a ticket to Hartford.

Gehrig knew the ropes this time, knew how many he had to hit to keep his average respectable. The season was a blessing: Gehrig gained 186 hits (93 of which were for extra bases), 37 home runs, 111 runs, and a .369 batting average in 134 games. On June 17, Gehrig hit his only minor league grand slam, in a game against Worchester. His first-sacker abilities had improved, mainly because he wouldn't give up, practicing until his arm ached.

Huggins was impressed and was pressured to call Gehrig back up for good. Players under a major league contract could only be in the minor leagues for 2 seasons before they were offered to other American League teams. Huggins wasn't about to let Gehrig go to another manager. Besides, though he thought Gehrig was still a little too raw to be a starter, he was confident that the ox's "seasoning" was sufficient, and what Gehrig didn't know yet he would learn from the bench.

And that's the story of how Gehrig came to the Yankees to stay.

Written by S. Kaden, 2002