His life started simply enough. He was the only surviving child of two immigrant parents. But this tiny Heinie had stronger
stars than most.
"Pop" Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig hailed from Baden, Germany, immigrating to America at the age of 21 (a tad older than his
son would be when he joined the Yankees). "Mom" Christina Flack, native of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, was 14 years younger
than Heinrich. They shared a homeland and a religion (Lutheranism), and in 1900 they began to share a life together. After
they married, they gave life to a total of four children, but only one, the beefy blonde-headed one, survived past infancy.
Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig (the junior) was born in Yorkville, NY, on June 19, 1903, nearly breaking the scales at over 14 pounds.
Because his name was Americanized, he became known as Henry Louis, or Lou for short. Mom knew that Gehrig was "the only big
egg" she had, so she toiled hard to give him the best she could in the midst of hardship.
Perhaps Mom was a bit more fanatical than most parents at insisting her child have the best. Pop was often sick and could
not work. Subsequently, she had to work literally dawn to dusk to keep the riding-poverty-line family afloat. From a young
age, Gehrig helped his mother whenever he could and found odd jobs to bring in some extra cash for food or the rare sweet.
Add Mom's work ethic to her Old World style and she is one heck of a pusher. Never did Gehrig question whether or not he was
going to college because Mom would drill it into his head that he had to, no exception. She wanted him to be like his uncle
the engineer in Germany.
Neither social interaction nor school served Gehrig all that well. With no money for an overcoat and hat, Gehrig quickly
became accustomed to going without extra layers in cold weather, something he was teased for during childhood and something
he continued to do as an adult. Though he wasn't, by any means, a remedial student, he wasn't far above average. He toiled
as hard as Mom at his studies to keep his grades acceptable to both his mother and his overactive conscience. Happily he more
oft than not got a leg up on the playground where he was above average. At any sandlot game he tried. His favorite,
of course, was baseball.
When the Germans sunk the Lusitania and trapped America in World War I, life became even harder for the little chunk who
spoke fluent English with an inherited German inflection. Peers would taunt him with jabs such as "Little Heinie" and "dumb
Dutchman." But Gehrig persisted, letting out only a shy, defense-mechanism grin when jeers came his way (another habit he
kept into adulthood).
Persistence was practically synonymous with "Gehrig." If he couldn't get the hang of something, be it punting or long division,
he kept at it like a sweat bee until he was satisfied. Even in childhood, Gehrig insisted on keeping his responsibilities.
In grammar school he came down with a severe case of the flu (some say pneumonia), but he went to school anyway. The teacher
saw his flushed face and droopy, pained eyes and told him to go home. Gehrig insisted on staying so as to not mar his perfect
attendance record. The teacher said that showing up was enough to keep the record unbroken. So Gehrig went home, and he used a
similar trick during his major league career to keep his consecutive games streak going.
Despite his good-boy rep and his extreme shyness, Gehrig was a mischievous kid, but nothing beyond normal. Little pranks,
kids-be-kids stuff. However, because one stunt involved tripping a policeman for giggles, Mom was convinced her boy was headed
for a life of crime. A slight exaggeration on her part.
Around the age 12, when most Lutheran youths are studying for Confirmation, Gehrig was taking his turns on the rings at
the local turnverein, a hangout for German men of all ages. Turnvereins promoted traditional German gymnastics. The constant
workouts, the brainchild of Pop, were effective in turning baby fat into solid, bulging muscle as well as vastly improving
Meanwhile, Mom landed a job as housekeeper/cook for the Columbia University Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. Pop, when
up to it, worked at the handyman. Gehrig helped with catering and did chores assigned to him by Mom. The frat boys were not
the poorest of people, and, understandably, not the most sensitive of people. Gehrig's mass, accent, and introverted tendency
resulted in constant heckles from the frat brothers. They poked fun at nearly everything about him, but, typical of his nature,
Gehrig let it slide with a dimpled grin.
Gehrig attended High School of Commerce and, at first, was reluctant to go out for any school sports despite his ripped
body. It seemed that his physical appearance only made a bigger shell in which he could hide. He was doomed to be painfully
shy for the majority of his life. It took some sly convincing for Gehrig to go to tryouts.
"Some of the kids," he said on the issue, "had told my bookkeeping teacher that I could hit the ball a mile in the park.
The teacher ordered me to show up for a school game. I went up to the stadium on a streetcar. When I got there and saw so
many people going into the field and heard all the cheering and noise, I was so scared I couldn't see straight. I turned right
around and got back on the streetcar and went home. The next day the teacher threatened to flunk me if I didn't show up for
the next game. So I went."
And the world was never the same.
In his short stint at Commerce, Gehrig played football, baseball, soccer, basketball, hockey, and wrestling. Baseball was
ironically his worst sport but still his lifeblood. As he said in the preceding quote, his bat was a god's gift. However his
defensive skills were comparatively underdeveloped. Oddly, though, his school paper saw the exact opposite. "Gehrig, our first
sacker," one article reads, "can certainly field, but he is woefully weak at the bat." Perhaps the author was naming the wrong
player, or perhaps he was woefully blind. In either case, Gehrig would quickly make the reporter eat his words.
In June of 1920, Commerce won the city championships. As champions, Commerce was shipped off to Chicago to face the champions
of that city in a sportswriters-sponsored showdown. A bit overprotective, one could say, Mom adamantly refused to let Gehrig
go. That is, until Commerce coach Harry Kane vowed to personally tuck him in and count his fingers and toes every night of
the trip. "You would have thought I was going to Borneo or Zanzibar," Gehrig said.
The game was played on June 26, 1920, seven days after Gehrig's 17th birthday. It took place at Wrigley Field against Chicago's
Lane Technical High School. Gehrig started out as a so-so player in the big game. But in the ninth, with bases loaded, he
slammed one over the fence, ensuring Commerce's victory over Lane Tech. The shot earned him the nickname "the Babe Ruth of
the high schools" by the New York press.
"He was always a great kid in a pinch," Harry Kane said to the press, "and I would have bet my life he was going to slough
one this time."
The shot also earned him hard scouting from over 20 universities. The one he chose (with no little persuasion from Mom)
was Columbia University. He wasn't completely happy with his choice, considering the torment he had been and would be subjected
to by Columbia boys, but it made his mother happy. And that was more important to him than avoiding insensitive snobbery.
Want more details about his childhood? Refer to More About His Childhood and/or High School Hero Gehrig