The Most Valuable Player
NEW YORK – Lou Gehrig was not great copy. Though one of the giants of the game, he never felt at ease with his fame. This is part of the reason that he was never carousing around hotel lodges after dark, why he didn’t consort with celebrities, and definitely why he rarely wanted the spotlight in front of photographers. Gehrig was a good, steady man who rarely engaged in any thrilling, intense activities, the wildest being his ice skating in the off season. Well, that and the fact that he led the New York Yankees and would murder the baseball for the other half of the year.
However, this was not enough for sportswriters to concentrate their efforts on during the 1936 season. With Babe Ruth gone from the Yankees and since retired, the focus had shifted to the insecure captain of the team. With subtlety not a strong suit of the newspaper men, their interest quickly shifted from Gehrig to the young twenty-one year old rookie from San Francisco, Joe DiMaggio. Though both players were shy, it was the Italian outfielder who the press swooned for. From the day he arrived at camp – and even before – he carried himself with a confidence that was almost regal. Rarely one for quotes, he exuded a mysterious charisma, one that could have even been considered sexy.
In that summer’s All-Star Game at Braves Field, though Gehrig was picked by the managers to start a fourth consecutive year, played the entire contest, and contributed a mammoth home run off of Cubs rightie Curt Davis; it was DiMaggio who was the talk of the baseball world. In his May debut with the Yankees, he had three hits, one of which was a triple. Gehrig added four of his own, and scored five runs. After the smoke had cleared, New York had demolished St. Louis 14-5, and the headlines and articles from next day’s papers made little mention of the Captain’s effort. The early spring saw the press filling space on newsprint with comparisons to Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker and even Ed Delahanty. Lou, whose batting average was hovering in the vicinity of .390, with 20 homers by the All-Star break, was all but ignored. His reliable play day-after-day seemingly went unnoticed. Afterall, it was the young DiMaggio who was making the turnstiles click.
That same DiMaggio misplayed a fly ball off of the bat of the National League’s Billy Herman on that July 9 afternoon in Boston, opening the door for their final run – the margin of their victory over the American League. However, the week after the All-Star Game, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
As the 1936 season blazed on, so did the Yankees. Though most writers picked the heavy Detroit Tigers to win their third consecutive pennant, New York began to run away with first place, with both Gehrig and DiMaggio continuing to shine. However, as the summer heated up in those weeks of July and August, the focus of the Sports pages shifted to the doings of boxer Jesse Owens in Berlin. The African-American U.S. Olympian had won four gold medals during the competitions. In the process he found himself involved in a myth regarding his relationship with Hitler and the dictator’s Aryan regime.
Lou continued to play wonderfully as the summer began to wind down. He had hit another twenty-two homers in between the All-Star break and the first of August. While many of his teammates – Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Myril Hoag, Red Rolfe, Frank Crosetti, Monte Pearson, and even the young DiMaggio – missed action while nursing injuries, Gehrig played on. By late September, he further cemented his ‘Iron Horse’ legacy by playing in his 1800th consecutive game. On the field before the game, Lou humored New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who presented him with a scroll to honor his feat, as well as his jovial teammates, who doffed their hats and sung his praise.
The Yankees had begun to treat the ballpark as their office, where professionalism, implicit confidence, and studied efficiency brought win after win. This behavior had partially been conveyed by Manager Joe McCarthy, though mostly by the quiet Gehrig – the magnificent Yankee. He would go on to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award – his second – with a .354 average, 49 homers and 152 runs batted in.
With the team clinching the pennant in early September by 19 ½ games, the Yankees posted impressive numbers by the end of the season. Five of them had 100 or more runs batted in, and seven hit 10 or more homers. The entire team had batted .300 throughout the entire campaign, and scored 1,065 runs. The World Series was a return to the post season for six Yankees, and the freshman DiMaggio was expected to be a big factor. Facing off against the cross-town rival Giants for the first time since 1923, the Bomber’s potent offense would likely to make the difference.
The seemingly unbeatable screwball artist Carl Hubbell hurled a 6-1 masterpiece in the first game at the Polo Grounds, a contest in which the Yanks had not expected to have an easy time with. McCarthy and his team remained confident. They easily took the next three games by outscoring the Giants 25-7. Gehrig hit two home runs, including one off of Hubbell in Game 4. Hal Schumacher beat the Bombers in the fifth game, returning the series to the Polo Grounds. With the Yankees clinging to a one run lead in the ninth, they exploded for seven runs, routing the Giants and taking the title.
The Yankees had won their first Championship without Babe Ruth, and with the brilliant season of the youngster DiMaggio, it was clear that the future was looking bright for the franchise. Up until he played in his first game in May, the team was considered good, but by no means great. When DiMaggio began to flourish they became the class of the league. He finished his season with a .323 average, 29 home runs and 125 runs batted in, and carried his great play into the series. Giants Manager Bill Terry was quoted as saying, “I’ve heard about how one player made the difference in the Yankees this year, made a championship club out of a loser. I never understood how that could happen until today. Now I know.” Gehrig’s series was a good one too. Seemingly every one of his hits was timely, as his seven runs batted in would suggest.
Soon after a short celebration of the victory in Game 6, Lou showered, cleared his locker and left the clubhouse quietly. Most photos of the jovial club that appeared in the papers the next day lacked the presence of the Yankee captain.
Years later, many feel that it took his terrible illness to make the press realize he was there all along.