Lou Gehrig had two women in his life – his mother Christina and his wife Eleanor. Had the two been able to get along, the personal life of the legendary New York Yankees ballplayer and Hall of Famer would have been less stressful.
During Gehrig’s youth, Christina, a first-generation German immigrant, was the family’s backbone. Father Heinrich was mostly unemployed, drank and was frequently ill. Lou was the only one of the Gehrig babies to reach adulthood. Three others died in their infancy. Understandably, Christina became overprotective of Lou and urged him to abandon baseball, which he picked up as a teen playing in neighborhood games. She wanted him to focus on his school books.
When Gehrig enrolled in Manhattan’s Commerce High School, he starred in football and baseball. After Gehrig’s Commerce team beat Chicago’s Lane Tech High in Cubs Park, later Wrigley Field, the 10,000 in attendance knew they had seen a superstar in the making. In an account of Gehrig’s game-winning grand slam, the Chicago Tribune wrote that “his blow would have made any big leaguer proud….”
The Gehrig family was poor. While in high school, Christina worked as a Columbia University housekeeper at Sigma Nu Theta. Lou often went to the fraternity house to help his mother serve dinner and wash dishes. Gehrig also worked part-time jobs in butcher shops and grocery stores to help supplement the household income. A New York Giants scout arranged a 1921 Polo Grounds tryout for Gehrig, but no-nonsense manager John McGraw screamed at his coaches to get him off the field: “I’ve got enough lousy players without another one showing up.” For the balance of his managerial career, McGraw rued his hasty decision.
By 1925, Gehrig, age 22, was an established Yankees starter who began to challenge teammate Babe Ruth for homerun titles. The two, despite contrasting personalities – the shy, retiring Gehrig and the bombastic Ruth – became friends, fishing buddies and barnstorming partners, the “Bustin’ Babes vs. the Larrupin’ Lous. Christina, who by this time realized that professional baseball players could earn good paychecks, loved Ruth. The Bambino gifted Christina a puppy which she named Judge, a nickname for Ruth. The extra money Ruth generated was nice too. Lou made $2,000 more on the barnstorming tour than he did during the season.
Ironically, Ruth was at the center of a lifelong feud between Lou and his mother. Christina took a dim view of Lou’s girlfriends, seeing them as threats eager to win away her beloved son. When Chicago socialite Eleanor Grace Twitchell caught Lou’s eye, Christina strongly disapproved. In her autobiography, “My Luke and I,” Eleanor described herself as “young and rather innocent, but I smoked, played poker and drank bathtub gin….” But smoking and drinking weren’t the vices that most bothered Christina.
Mother Gehrig had heard through the grapevine that on a years-ago trip to Chicago, Ruth befriended Eleanor. Christina, and the entire baseball world, knew that Ruth didn’t maintain platonic relationships with women. When Lou and Eleanor married in 1933, friends had to persuade Christina to attend.
As Lou’s career flourished, the women cheered Lou on, albeit from separate vantage points. Christina and Eleanor watched with pride as Lou closed in on the most-consecutive-games-played record, then 2,130. But the rift between Christina and Eleanor never healed. Lou’s physical condition deteriorated – “like a great clock winding down,” wrote Eleanor. A butler, a housekeeper and his mother-in-law who moved into the couple’s two-story home in Riverdale nursed Gehrig, but not Christina.
After Lou passed, tension between the in-laws deepened. The parties disputed how Lou’s estate should have been divided. Heinrich and Christina believed that Eleanor was withholding monthly payments from a $20,000 life insurance policy payable to Lou’s parents. An out-of-court settlement was reached.
Christina and Heinrich faded from the news, and died quietly. Eleanor, however, remained prominent, at least publicly. Married to Lou for only eight years, widowed for 43, Eleanor approved the final draft of “The Pride of the Yankees,” donated Lou’s baseball treasures to the Hall of Fame, left $100,000 to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and another $100,000 to the Rip Van Winkle Fund for ALS research.
Privately, a lonely, friendless and childless Eleanor withdrew, drank excessively and, once, passed out, caught her bed on fire from smoking. At Eleanor’s 1984 funeral, only two attended, her attorney George Pollack and his wife. And so ended the sad Gehrig family saga; Lou gone too soon, and his family unhappily bickering all the way to their graves.
Copyright 2023 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected].