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Making it into high school was amazing enough, yet Gehrig was was able to top this feat

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Gehrig, center, with the Commerce baseball team

In 1917 Gehrig entered Commerce High School located at West 65th Street. Though he was bulging at the seams, he was still wearing boyhood short pants. His classmates did not let him forget it. The short pants were a reminder to him and everyone else that his family hovered in poverty. To alleviate the sting, Gehrig saved what money he could from the here-and-there jobs he did for a butcher and a grocery store to buy himself a pair of "big boy" pants, ones like all the other high school boys had. He did not, however, clue Mom in on his thrift. It was her opinion that he should continue wearing the short pants until they were worn useless.

To keep his long pants a secret, Gehrig hid them in the foyer of the family's apartment building. He would put on his short pants in the apartment, then put the long pants on over them in the foyer. When he got home from school, he took the long pants off and hid them again, walking into the apartment in his old short pants.

So he had a rough start to high school, sure, but things were bound to change. Many of his classmates knew of his athletic prowess and urged him to go out for school teams. He was reluctant and shy, as usual, because he thought high school sports were in a higher level of play than he was able to play. These classmates were relentless, even telling the teachers that Gehrig should go out for the teams.

"Some of the kids," he said, "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."

He went, saw, and tried out for the baseball team. And the football team. And soccer. And wrestling, hockey, basketball. A diehard athlete. Then a doctor told him during a physical that he had a small heart. Today a small heart is known to be advantageous to athletes because it pumps blood more efficiently. During Gehrig's day, however, it was mistaken as an ailment. The doctor told Gehrig to limit his play, which is why Gehrig cut back to baseball, football, and soccer.

As always, his favorite sport was baseball. His freshman season was under the guidance of Coach Duschatko. The season wasn't much to brag about. Gehrig hit a lousy .150, thanks mostly to a seriously bad habit of stepping in the bucket (stepping out of the box, away from a pitch). Another major problem was that Gehrig was virtually helpless against a southpaw curve.

Help came his sophomore year in the form of Coach Harry Kane. Kane was taken with Gehrig almost immediately and worked tirelessly with him to correct the bucket foot and fear of curves. Later in life, Gehrig would publicly give Kane credit for forming him into a power hitter. The numbers prove Kane's teaching ability - Gehrig's second season ended with him earning a .300 batting average. Though his bucket foot was not completely cured, he didn't do too shabby.

Strangely, Commerce's newspaper reported in May 1919, "Gehrig, our first sacker, can certainly field, but he is woefully weak at the bat." This seems a tad backwards. His hitting was improving wonderfully, but his defense needed much, much more work. For being naturally built, Gehrig was not a natural athlete, that is to say, he had the build and dedication to learning, but he had to learn virtually every coordinated movement baseball requires. With Kane's help, Gehrig did start his sophomore year at first base, making him the youngest player on the team. By his senior year, he was the most versatile player, serving as an outfielder and pitcher in addition to first base.

On the gridiron he was equally versatile; he played tackle and guard. Eventually he got tired of playing on the line because it was limiting his ability to pass, punt, and carry. He actually threatened to turn in his jersey if his coach did not allow him to play fullback where all his talents would be utilized. By no means was Gehrig a crybaby, he simply knew he would never gain experience and coordination if he was not challenged. Gehrig got his wish to play fullback.

The soccer field attracted Gehrig his sophomore year. Commerce-mate Oliver Gintel convinced him to try out for the team after seeing him "nonchalantly" kick a soccer ball from one end of the field to the other. Gehrig played soccer for three years, and each year the team won the winter championships.

Gehrig was a force to reckon with on every field. Fall 1920 his opponents learned this fully. During the course of a single day, he had a soccer game followed by a football game. He kicked the winning goal for the Commerce soccer team, then he threw a 40-yard pass to a receiver to bring Commerce over the opponent 9 to 6.

"He was the greatest athlete I ever coached," Kane said. "He was almost as big then as he was when he was at the height of his career with the Yanks, and he had the same spirit and eagerness to win."

This eagerness carried over into every aspect of Gehrig's life, namely academics. Just as he was not a natural athlete, he was not a natural brain. He had to toil equally hard at his books, never complaining even when his toiling did him little good. His typing/English teacher, Mollie Silverman Parnis, recalled, "He could hit a baseball without missing a stroke, but his thick fingers just couldn't seem to find the right keys on the typewriter." With her help, Gehrig succeeded in both English and typing, though he preferred to hand-write (he had a perfect, gorgeous script that reflected how hard he worked to get everything to flow). For the first part of his career, Gehrig made a habit of sending Ms. Parnis roses from every city the Yankees played, as a way of thank-you.

Gehrig's willingness to work was spurred by his home life. During his high school years, he kept a string of jobs to help bring in extra money. On the weekends he would help out at a local grocery store. Whenever Mom needed him, he would help her. His senior year at Commerce, Mom landed a job as cook/housekeeper at the Columbia University Sigma Tau Delta fraternity house. Pop, in between his all-too-often bouts with some ailment or another, was the handyman. Gehrig would help Mom with serving, cleaning, and washing dishes. Because he helped wait tables, he got his meals for free, which was a relief to Mom because he had such a huge appetite.

The frat brothers, to say the least, were not sensitive toward those who have to struggle. The nicknames they gave Gehrig echoed those Gehrig's taunting peers would throw at him. Little Dutch Boy, Little Heinie, Dumb Dutchman, etc. As had become his custom, Gehrig let the taunts slide with a shy grin. He rarely complained.

Rarely complained about anything, even though his schedule and worry list were both full. Once, only once, did Kane hear Gehrig complain. They were in the middle of a baseball game that wanted to stretch into extra innings. Kane noticed that Gehrig was sulking and irritable. When asked what was bothering him, Gehrig expressed his concern that the extra innings would make him late for helping Mom with dinner at the frat house. Kane told him that if he wanted to leave, he would have to end the game himself. Always one to do as he was told, Gehrig attacked on offensive and the game was broken the very next inning.

Besides the random jobs, Gehrig had figured out how to make money from playing baseball. He joined the Minqua Baseball Club sponsored by Assembly District Democratic Club. Minqua played against semi-pro teams from New Jersey and other area Democratic districts. It was a guaranteed $35. Then he found out that battery players earned $5 more, and he signed up to be a pitcher. Mom was astounded that a boy would be paid for playing "a bummer's business," but it was bringing in more money than she could argue against.

At first, Mom wasn't keen on the idea of Gehrig playing sports in high school. It was fine when he was in grammar school because schoolboys play schoolyard games. But high school was preparation for college and seriousness. She thought he needed to concentrate on school to become a collegian then an engineer like his uncle. From his first day in grammar school, she made it known that Gehrig was going to be a scholar, someone to bring pride to the Gehrig name in America. Baseball, and other sports, she thought to be a waste of time. Then her son became the high school hero and she changed her song.

Gehrig's senior year, Commerce won the city championships. The Daily News decided to flaunt their champs by sponsoring an inter-city baseball game, New York versus Chicago. The champions from each city would have a showdown at Wrigley Field. The game day, June 26, 1920. The opponent, Lane Technical High School. The Commerce boys were to travel by train to Chicago and back, being away from home for less than 5 days.

Mom was adamantly opposed to Gehrig going. Baseball was "a bunch of nonsense," she insisted, and besides, Gehrig had never been out of her sight for even one night. "You would have thought I was going to Borneo or Zanzibar," Gehrig joked later. For Mom to relent, it took the solemn oath of Kane that he would personally watch after the boy. Pop, meanwhile, thought baseball was a "peculiar game," but he was willing to let his son go play.

Gehrig was not the only boy who had never been out of the city before. Just being on a train, sleeping in Pullmans, was enough to giddy any kid in the group. They felt like royalty, and even more so when Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft (former President) came into their car. Taft was a huge baseball fan (he started the tradition of throwing out the first pitch), and he was genuinely happy to meet the boys. He greeted each of them and congratulated them all on their championship. Then comedian Joey Frisco, who also happened to be on the train, made a point to stop by their car and give an impromptu mini-show.

The game proved to be even more enthralling than the train ride. Even though Gehrig went hitless in his first 5 plate appearances, he did not fold. In the ninth, Commerce led 8 to 6 and had loaded bases. Gehrig came to bat. He shrugged off the first pitch, but jumped on the second. He sent it bee-lining out of the stadium, and it bounced across Sheffiled Avenue to find a cozy landing on a front porch. Commerce's victory was sealed; they won 12 to 6.

"He was always a great kid in a pinch," Kane commented excitedly on Gehrig's blast to the press after the game, "and I would have bet my life he was going to slough one this time."

When the boys returned to New York, there was a large crowd waiting for them at the station. A band played for them, as a band would for any heroes. The crowd carried the boys from the train to the cabs that were waiting to whisk the boys back to Commerce for extended jubilation. In the school gym, students, parents, teachers, and visitors loudly cheered for their heroes. The principal noted each important event in the game, namely a particular grand slam.

Both the Chicago and New York press lamented Gehrig's grand slam. Chicago Tribune: "Gehrig's blow would have made any big leaguer proud, yet it was walloped by a boy who hasn't yet started to shave." New York Times: "the real Babe Ruth never poled one more thrilling." (Despite such praise, the Times spelled his name "Gherrig"; they wouldn't get it wrong again, though). Around this time, the New York press began to refer to Gehrig in comparison to Ruth, "the Babe Ruth of the schoolyards," they called him.

Also around this time, Mom began a collection of all the articles in which her boy was mentioned, a tradition continued through his professional career. She kept the clippings in a drawer, and the huge stack would later be discovered and assembled in a scrapbook by Gehrig's wife.

College was a very realistic option for Gehrig after the Chicago game. Before he graduated, he had received offers from at least 24 universities. Recruiters were resorting to all sorts of tricks to influence Gehrig. Columbia University was the most convincing. Bobby Watt and Frank O'Neil were both Columbia grads; Watt was a member of Sigma Tau Delta, the same fraternity house for which Mom worked. Watt recognized Gehrig as the kid he and his brothers would pick on. He knew how much Gehrig still clung to the apron strings and played it up. Instead of going to Gehrig, he went to Mom and made her believe that it was best if Gehrig stayed in the city and went to Columbia, a school that had been so important in the Gehrig family already. Mom, in turn, sold it to Gehrig.

Gehrig signed on, soon to be known as "Columbia Lou."

Actual New York Times article from 1920 (courtesy of MoreGehrig reader Larry)

Written by S. Kaden