The term underrated is thrown around quite frequently. It can be used to describe pretty much any situation, but is most often used for sports figures and their on-field exploits.
Yesterday, June 21st, was the 71st anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s retirement. While Gehrig removed himself from the Yankee lineup prior to the game on May 2, 1939, he remained with the team as captain for another six weeks.
Gehrig was one of the greatest all-around baseball players of all time, but much of his greatness was often overshadowed by the great Yankee teams and players. He was part of the first Yankee dynasty’s back in the mid-to-late 1920’s through the mid-1930’s.
He is widely considered the greatest first baseman of all time.
His records are numerous. He has the most grand slams with 23, has the most seasons with 400+ total bases with five (only four other players have two or more—Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx all had two, Philadelphia Phillies slugger Chuck Klein has three), and Gehrig AVERAGED 147 RBI per season.
Since Gehrig retired in 1939, only 16 times has 147 RBI in a single season even been eclipsed! It has only happened 52 total times, with Gehrig attaining this level seven times himself.
He hit 493 career home runs, accumulated a staggering 1,995 RBI, scored 1,888 runs, and had a career batting average of .340. At the time of his retirement, Gehrig was second all time in home runs, third in RBI, and third in runs scored.
But how can the greatest first baseman of all time, and the best run producer baseball has ever had, be underrated?
Easy. The biggest reason was the player he is most associated with, Babe Ruth.
Gehrig was overshadowed his entire career by the hitters who hit in front of him.
Gehrig wore uniform No. 4 because he hit fourth (cleanup) in the Yankee lineup. The player before him, Babe Ruth, wore uniform No. 3 because Ruth hit third, just in front of Gehrig.
Gehrig put up all those great production seasons even hitting immediately behind the other big run producer of that era. In 1927 when Ruth hit 60 HR’s and drove in 164 runs, Gehrig came to the plate at least 60 times with the bases empty.
But Gehrig made the most of his men on base opportunities, driving in an amazing 175 runs that 1927 season hitting behind Ruth. On a continuous basis, Gehrig was denied many opportunities to increase his statistics, and yet, still was the eras top RBI producer.
And it was not only Ruth, because two seasons after Ruth left the Yankees, they acquired Joe DiMaggio from the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals. The young Yankee Clipper phenom hit third in front of Gehrig for the remainder of Lou’s career.
Play on the field was not the only way both Ruth and DiMaggio overshadowed Gehrig.
Both Ruth and DiMaggio were huge personalities; Ruth very gregarious while Joe D. was a more quiet celebrity who was a private person, but certainly relished the New York nightlife.
Gehrig was more reserved, a quiet family man. He did not fraternize with others during the train rides or when they were on the 1934 Tour of Japan. He had Jan Brady syndrome, the middle child between big brother Babe and the young, talented brother DiMaggio.
While Gehrig was renowned as a slugger, his fielding and speed on the bases were vastly underrated.
Gehrig was swift around the first base bag, with quick feet and an innate ability to position himself correctly. His good footwork could have been a product of his time as a fullback for the Columbia University football team.
Gehrig had a career .990 fielding percentage at first base. Two of the best recent defensive first baseman in New York were Don Mattingly (.992) and Keith Hernandez (.994).
With terrible field conditions compared to the modern era and comparably deficient equipment, Gehrig still held his own percentage-wise compared to the first basemen of today.
Still, for a big guy, Gehrig had great speed. He did not steal bases, but in reading reports of that time showed Gehrig was one of the most fearless baserunners.
He scored from first base most of the time on doubles, accumulated 163 career triples, and hit six inside the park home runs. In 1926, he led the league with 20 three-baggers.
He also stole home an amazing 15 times in his career. Lou Brock never stole home.
Yet, even though Gehrig was an all-around ballplayer, not just a slugger, he is often overlooked when “the best players in history are discussed.”
Lou Gehrig played in seven World Series with the Yankees, with his team winning six titles. Gehrig dominated these contests, hitting .361 BA/.477 OBP/.731 SLG/1.208 OPS with 10 home runs and 35 RBI. All numbers which are considerable better than his career stats of .340/3447/.632/1.075 OPS.
His only “bad” series could be 1938, with the ALS disease already ravaging his body, when he only hit .286 with no extra base hits. Gehrig scored eight game winning runs in World Series competition. Yet it is Ruth’s gigantic 1928 Series against the Cardinals, and Ruth’s 1932 Game Three “Called Shot” which always got the headlines.
With his unknown deadly disease crippling him, Gehrig continued to play. His consecutive game streak is now toppled, but the stories are still there. Future X-rays of his hands revealed many broken bones which he played through, and he came back from a beaning in 1933, staying in that game.
It has been documented that once a person is diagnosed with ALS, the disease which now carries Gehrig’s name, the person usually lives about five years.
Gehrig lived only two years after diagnosis, indicating he played major league baseball at a high level with the disease for three seasons.
Yet he only thought about others. When he went to manager Joe McCarthy before taking himself out of the lineup, Lou said, “I’m benching myself for the good of the team.”
The consummate team player.
He was a great slugger, but also a great runner, fielder and person. Overshadowed throughout his career by Ruth and DiMaggio, many people only remember “The Iron Horse” from his consecutive game streak and the disease which took his life.
On June 3, 1932, Gehrig was the first 20th Century player to hit four home runs in one game, and would have had five if Philadelphia A’s center fielder Al Simmons did not rob Gehrig of another with a great over the shoulder catch.
With Shibe Park’s 470 foot distance to that area of the field, it probably would have been an inside the park homer.
After that game, McCarthy said to Lou, “Well, Lou, nobody can take today away from you.” On the same day, however, cross-town manager John McGraw announced his retirement after thirty years of managing the New York Giants.
McGraw, and not Gehrig, got the main headlines in the sports sections the next day.
A typical occurrence for one of the most underrated players in baseball history.