By Glen Sparks
The tall, strapping first baseman hit in the middle of the High School of Commerce line-up.
The son of German immigrants and a graduate of P.S. 132 in Manhattan, this star athlete also played football and soccer. On the baseball field, he crushed pitches harder and longer than just about anyone in the history of New York City youth sports.
Lou Gehrig, the second of four children of Heinrich and Christine Gehrig, and the only one to survive into adulthood, grew up obsessing over games that his parents said were foolish. Why waste your time playing ball, they asked. Why not study hard in school, go to college and make your living as a doctor or an engineer, they pleaded.
Lou, though, fell in love with the great American game, as did the children of many immigrants. In his junior year, Gehrig led Commerce to an outstanding season. The shy teen turned into the campus hero. No kid belted baseballs like he did.
Commerce earned an all-expenses paid trip to Chicago in the early summer of 1920. There, they’d face off against that city’s best high school team, Lane Technical. Nearly 8,000 supporters cheered as Gehrig and his Commerce teammates left by train from Grand Central Station, bound for the Windy City.
Young Lou almost didn’t make the trip. Mama Gehrig nearly put a stop to things. Why go all the way to Chicago—and how many miles away was that?—to play this silly game of baseball, she asked. Finally, one of the coaches talked Christine Gehrig into letting her boy go with the rest of the squad.
Enthusiastic Chicago sportswriters knew all about Gehrig. A writer at the Chicago Tribune called him the “Babe Ruth of high schools.” (Ruth would crush 54 homers in 1920 for the New York Yankees to lead the American League.)
Former President William Howard Taft met the Commerce team in Chicago and wished everyone good luck. About 2,000 people welcomed the young ballplayers at the Chicago train station, including the Lane Tech marching band. This promised to be a big event.
More than 10,000 fans crowded into Cubs Park (re-dubbed Wrigley Field in 1927) on June 26 to watch the game, sponsored by the city of Chicago.
Gehrig walked twice, grounded out and struck out in his first four plate appearances. Commerce, clearly not a one-man team, built an 8-6 lead going into the ninth inning. Gehrig walked up to bat one more time; the bases were loaded with two outs.
Lane Tech pitcher Norris Rytholm stood on the mound. He hurled a pitch high and inside to the left-handed Gehrig. The young hitter nearly came out of his shoes. He swung hard and crushed the Rytholm offering high, up and over the right-field wall for a grand-slam home run.
That lone hit made quite an impression. “The bright star …” the New York Daily News reported the next day, “was Babe Gehrig.”
Young Lou graduated from Commerce in January, 1921, and immediately enrolled at hometown Columbia University, an Ivy League school. He was a pretty good student after all. Gehrig went to Columbia on a football scholarship. He also played some baseball for the Lions.
Gehrig signed a contract with the Yankees on April 30, 1923. He made his big league debut late in the 1924 campaign. The greatest first baseman in the history of baseball belted 493 home runs and hit .340 over 17 seasons, teaming most years with the great Ruth.
The Iron Horse, as many called him, topped the 150-RBI mark eight times over his glorious career and hit at least 40 homers five times. Gehrig retired early in the 1939 season and died June 2, 1941, at age 37 of the disease that bears his name.