NEW YORK – A mere $8,000. When Lou Gehrig received an offer to play for the Yankees in 1927 for that sum, he didn’t hesitate. About as quickly as it reached his parent’s apartment in Morningside Heights, it was read, signed and returned to the team’s offices without fanfare.
Of course, in the winter months of 1927, Lou Gehrig was not yet a superstar. He was only twenty-three years old. He had recently approached 210 lbs and a height of 6’1”, the weight and height that he would carry for the majority of his career. And in his first full season with the Yankees, he performed well, hitting sixteen home runs, and leading the league in triples.
However, he also proved to be an unnatural at his position of first base, appearing clumsy and lacking a defensive minded instinct. It was probably because of this that Yankee owner Colonel Ruppert offered him the same salary that was given to Benny Bengough and Ben Paschal – both of whom were Yankee reserves. In contrast, the star of the Yankees, Babe Ruth, was under contract for $70,000.
Most of the baseball writers picked the Philadelphia Athletics to take the 1927 series. Connie Mack had built himself a championship caliber team with pitchers Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, and Eddie Rommel. The regulars on the diamond included Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx. Additionally, over the winter months, Mack was able to sign an aging Ty Cobb, who was thought to have been the final piece of the puzzle.
The Yankees squared off against that Philadelphia team in the Bronx for the first four games of the season. New York took the first game, 8-3; the next, 10-4; tied in the third, 9-9; and won the next day, 6-3. During that series, Gehrig was productive with four hits and five driven in.
They went on to take the next three from Boston as well, starting the season winning their first six. And after two weeks, the Yankees were in first and Lou was batting .447. At that point, his team had scored eighty-six runs, and he had driven in or scored thirty-two of them. Sportswriter Joe Vila stated in The New York Sun that, “Gehrig today is first class in his position. He is faster on his feet and thinks quickly. As a hitter, he ought to lead all of the first basemen in the American League.”
By the end of May, both Gehrig and Ruth were hitting home runs and winning headlines. With the newspapers and sportswriters taking more of an interest in the young slugger, they discovered a player who never bragged about his abilities, treated everyone with respect, and also just enjoyed playing the game. On the 24th, when Lou was first referred to as “Biscuit Pants” by The New York Times, the young first baseman had ten homers, while Ruth had eleven.
By mid-June, Gehrig was hitting .394, with fourteen home runs and sixty runs batted in. On June 21st, Ruth mashed two homers in the opening game of a doubleheader against the Red Sox, giving him twenty-four for the season. The next day, Lou hit three in one game, the first time he had accomplished the feat, giving him twenty-one. Dan Daniel from the New York Telegram thought that the Yankee first basemen had it all. “If Gehrig could master the trick of pulling his drives into dead right, there would be no real contest with the Babe. Lou would hit at least sixty-five homers this season,” he wrote.
Lou’s public profile and dollar value would continue to rise as a result of this so-called ‘contest’, and not just baseball fans would begin to take notice. During that summer, Gehrig caught the eyes of Christy Walsh, Babe Ruth’s business manager. Being that Lou appeared as a handsome, quiet and polite person, Christy felt he could package the youngster’s image with the Babe’s, especially since Ruth was the exact opposite to Gehrig in almost every way. He would encourage photographers to shoot the men side by side, as well as needle the writers into playing up a theme of friendly competition. And, those same newspapers that were starting to predict that Lou would win this friendly home run competition, but that he might go on to shatter all of Babe Ruth’s records. If Gehrig continued to care for his body at his age, there was no reason why he could not be incredibly productive by the time Ruth was ready to retire from the game.
Lou’s conditioning fueled both the thighs and torso that were responsible for his compact swing. He had a rather low center of gravity, as his left knee would almost scrape the ground when he was at the plate. And, unlike Ruth, he didn’t flail. While the Babe’s home runs soared into the air like mortars, Gehrig’s left the bat like a cannonballs.
Through Walsh’s efforts, the Yankees began to draw even larger crowds when traveling. Where fans once wanted nothing more than to see Babe Ruth step outside of a train and utter a few words or sign some autographs, now they asked the same of Gehrig.
And at home in New York, things had never been better for the business of Yankee baseball. The club had to hire a second announcer for the ballpark, one to stand on the field to announce the names of the batters and pitchers through a megaphone. Additionally, because of the ever-rising attendance, more and more radio stations began broadcasting the games over the airwaves, opening up the sport to more people than newspapers or word of mouth could ever hope to reach
On July 30th, Gehrig hit two homers against Cleveland. He would hit another two on August 3rd. And, by the beginning of September, Gehrig had forty-three for the year. On the fifth of that month, Fenway Park was jammed to watch Gehrig hit another, tying Ruth at forty-four with twenty-three games to go. On September 7th, Lou was batting .389, with 45 home runs and 161 runs batted in. Had he continued at that pace, he would have ended the season hitting 52 home runs and 186 runs batted in to go with his stellar average. No one in the history of the sport had ever hit for such a high average with that much power.
Lou began to cool off in those last few weeks, while Ruth eventually hit his 60th against the Senators at Yankee Stadium. However, in the end, Gehrig set a record for runs batted in with 175. He also smashed forty-seven home runs and batted .373. In the games that Lou homered, the Yankees were 33-7. He would win the League Award at the end of the season, while helping his club win the World Series against the Pirates.
The New York Yankees had thrived on the services of their first baseman, their new superstar. This perfect maelstrom of time, place and person broadened their fan base by tens of thousands and their bankbooks by millions – all of this while paying Lou Gehrig under $52 a game.