Farewell to Sportby Paul Gallico
For fourteen years during the golden age of sports, Paul Gallico was one of America’s ace sportswriters. He saw them all—the stars and the hams, the immortals and the phonies in boxing, wrestling, baseball, football, golf, tennis, and every other field of muscular endeavor in which men and women try to break hearts and necks for cash or glory. Then in
For fourteen years during the golden age of sports, Paul Gallico was one of America’s ace sportswriters. He saw them all—the stars and the hams, the immortals and the phonies in boxing, wrestling, baseball, football, golf, tennis, and every other field of muscular endeavor in which men and women try to break hearts and necks for cash or glory. Then in 1937, at the height of his game (and the height of the payroll), Gallico suddenly and famously called it quits and left the New York Daily News. But before he departed the world of sports, he left his legions of fans one last hurrah: a collection of his best sports essays called, appropriately, Farewell to Sport.
Here, in twenty-six chapters, every major and minor sport is covered. Included are sketches of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Tex Rickard, and Jack Sharkey, written in an accessible, conversational style. Often credited with creating “participatory journalism,” Gallico would play golf with Bobby Jones, catch Major League pitcher Dizzy Dean’s fastball, swim with Johnny Weissmuller, play tennis with Helen Wills, catch passes from quarterback Benny Friedman, and box with Jack Dempsey (he lasted one minute, thirty-seven seconds).
Molly Ivins, New York Times
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Pride of the Yankees
By Paul Gallico
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1942 Paul Gallico
All rights reserved.
THE TIME, THE PLACE—AND THE MAN
Out by the flagpole in center field of the Yankee Stadium, the ball park which during the glittering Golden Decade was the home of the greatest slugging team that baseball has ever known, there stands today a newly erected bronze plaque.
Raised on it in relief, is the bust of a man wearing a baseball cap and uniform. And the inscription thereon reads—
"Henry Louis Gehrig. June 19, 1903–June 2, 1941. A man, a gentleman, and a great ball player, whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time. This memorial is a tribute from the Yankee players to their beloved captain and teammate, July 4, 1941."
Of all the great and glamorous athletes, the gigantic and sometimes screwy sports figures of the Dizzy Decade, who clattered across the sports stage with fuss and fume and fury, and the thunder and lightning of their compelling personalities, Lou Gehrig, the ball player, was probably the simplest, the most retiring, the most sensitive and honest.
During the greater part of his playing career, he was completely overshadowed by the gigantic, eye and publicity compelling figure of George Herman Ruth, the Babe.
It was an era of giants into which he was born, figures so arresting and well publicized that it seemed necessary to name but one or two to represent each of the great sports.
When you had said Babe Ruth in baseball, Tunney and Dempsey in boxing, Bill Tilden and Helen Wills in tennis, Bob Jones in golf, Paddock and Nurmi on the running tracks, Earl Sande the jockey, Knute Rockne and Red Grange on the gridiron and Tommy Hitchcock on the polo field, there was a swift and comprehensive statement of the era.
But along with these, were many hundreds of great athletes, men and women, colorful and capable, but whose efforts were overshadowed by the individual brilliance of the leaders.
One of these was Lou Gehrig, Yankee first baseman, iron man, slugger and team captain, who batted in fourth position after Babe Ruth on Murderer's Row.
Life itself, or Fate or Circumstance, call it what you will, made of the late Lou Gehrig one of the most dramatic, tragic and gallant figures ever to stride across the American sports scene, a scene which has been so great a part of our national life.
He was described as a plain, humdrum fellow with not much color.
He never considered himself either unusual or outstanding.
It was the American public with its close to infallible sound, common sense and simple good judgment that made of Lou Gehrig a national hero.
Because, what happened to Lou Gehrig, his life, his struggles, his one love, and his ending, far transcends that evanescent, glittery, surface stuff called color. In interest, and in the tug upon the heartstrings, it outweighs sports and the figures of sport. Lou Gehrig went far beyond the newsprint accolade of being listed as one of the great athletes of the first quarter of the century, and even beyond being named, as he was, by experts and veterans of the game, as the greatest first baseman that ever lived.
He entered the hearts of the American people, because of his living as well as his passing, he became and was to the end, a great and splendid human being.
And so I am calling this brief biographical sketch—"Lou Gehrig—An American Hero," because he was a hero and because he was wholly our own.
He was not an American bred to the soil of many generations of Anglo-Saxon blood, but first generation.
His parents were Germans. He was born three years after they immigrated to America, at the turn of the century. But he was an American in body and soul, through that great and blessed spirit that vitalizes this country and that leaps like lightning through the veins of the newborn of this land, no matter what their background, or bloodstreams. Everything that Henry Louis Gehrig did from the day that he could walk and talk, until his ending, was as American as Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, the Rocky Mountains, or the Dakota Prairies.
His is an American story, a boy of foreign born parents who rose from poverty to dignity and success, and his virtues are the virtues that are admired by American people and which in the past have helped to guide us.
He was a naive man, but then we are also a naive people. In every way, but in particular in the details of his brave and gallant end, he lived the kind of life that we know is good, a life that we have come to believe, and with considerable cause, is something that is our own, and in a way, indigenous to this country.
The kind of a man Lou Gehrig was would have been neither liked nor admired in Germany. He would not have been understood in France, or appreciated in England. Nor would the Europe of today understand why we Americans feel about him the way we do, why we write his biography, why we are preparing to screen the life of a man who was neither statesman, politician, national patriot or soldier, who was merely a paid performer, a professional athlete, an entertainer, whose existence did not so much as by the millionth part of the weight of a hair, tip the balance of history.
There was once a country in Europe that would have understood, and which in its own way perpetuated the name and fame of men who were like Gehrig, a country in which the slogan—"In mens sano, corpore sano," a clean mind in a healthy body, was a living thing. The Golden Age of Greece knew how to admire the simple virtues too, a Greece that two thousand years ago was a Democracy.
What will you say of Lou Gehrig beyond that he lived a good and useful life, set a fine example to others and was cut off by tragic mischance at the height of his career?
But somehow, it is only we the naive and the simple here in America who understand and feel how much we today stand in the need of stories like that of Lou Gehrig, tales of honest, trustworthy men, born on our own soil, life patterns that are not crossed by blackness, or chicanery, vice, or intrigue, careers that are not poisoned by double dealing, jealousy or opportunism, love stories that are simple and virtuous and true. We need them to get back our own faith in the values of simple and decent living.
It is good and sweet and comforting to write about a poor boy who conquered life's handicaps, about a young athlete who was proud of his skill and took care of his body, about a shy young lover who suffered because he felt he was unworthy of the girl he had learned to love, and who when he won her, was loyal, faithful, kind and grateful to the end for the love that had come to him. And it is inspiring to tell the story of a man who gave value and more, penny for penny, for what he was paid, who gave of his strength unsparingly and unstintingly, with never a thought for himself, and who in the end, knew for over a year that he must die of a hopeless malady, but who had no thought but to keep the knowledge from his wife, and who did no single thing that was not brave and gallant, to his last breath.
The American people, I think, did themselves much honor when they named Gehrig "hero" and from their hearts tendered him his final ovations. For in the end, we will strive to be like that which we admire. We are a truly unique nation in the simple qualities of our ethics. Gehrig is a hero drawn from our national life and our national concept of the living of life. What have we to do in thought or concept with those people who name as their heroes, boys who press bomb release levers over crowded cities to spatter human flesh blindly and wilfully?
Henry Louis Gehrig was only a few days short of thirty-eight when he died, but he spanned in that lifetime, almost a complete cycle of history, and certainly, two of the greatest sports eras America has ever known—pre and post World War I. The men who were the great baseball stars of his boyhood were the fading players of his early days in the game. And the country into which he had been born a citizen was preparing to go to war against the country his parents had left behind them.CHAPTER 2
YOUTH OF A HERO
Turn the clock back to the summer and fall of 1915, and the effect is curious. Britain was warning Bulgaria, saying that Germany sought to disrupt the Balkans and enslave the states that played her game. President Wilson was snarling at the German submarine warfare, and Congress was to be asked for $400,000,000 to begin national defense, and raise the Army to 120,000 men. William Gillette was playing a return engagement of Sherlock Holmes, and the Boston Red Sox beat the Phillies in the World Series by five games to one.
On the Boston team was an outfielder named Tris Speaker, a little shortstop named Everett Scott, and a new pitcher come up from Baltimore only the year before called Babe Ruth. And the great pitching star of that season and who the Phillies counted upon—in vain—to win the world series for them, was Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Lou Gehrig at that time was twelve years old, a shy, worried, harassed youngster in cast-off clothes, attending P. S. 132 in Manhattan, and living on upper Amstredam Avenue where he was known as the Heini janitor's kid.
It was ten years before Murderer's row and the glamorous sports figures of the Golden Decade, but there were great names in baseball to fascinate a little boy who loved the game and was trying in an awkward, left handed way to play it.
Ty Cobb led the American League in batting for the ninth consecutive year, Walter Johnson was burning them over the plate for the Washington Senators, and on July 4th, a boy named George Sisler, a former University of Michigan baseball star pitched for the Browns of St. Louis, and won his game 3 to 1.
The New York Giants had Snodgrass and Burns and Fletcher, and Fred Merkle of boner fame, Hans Lobert and Chief Myers and Larry Doyle. Rube Marquart and Jeff Tesreau and Christy Mathewson pitched for them.
Heine Zimmerman, Zack Wheat and Jake Daubert were names to conjure with on the Brooklyn club. And on the not particularly distinguished team of the New York Yankees for that year, along with Andy High and Roger Peckinpaugh and a heterogeneous assortment of athletes, was a tall stringbean of a first baseman by the name of Wally Pipp. "Pipp the Pickler," the sports writers dubbed him, because he was a handy fellow with the ash and had been known to break up many a ball game with a well placed hit.
These were the famous names of the day, and these were the heroes of young Looie Gehrig, the Janitor's kid, who in a clumsy left handed way was trying to play baseball himself, and dreaming his dreams. He knew them all by name and sight, he had their likenesses on the wonderful souvenir picture cards that came with the Sweet Caporal cigarettes his old man smoked, or in certain types of penny candy which he got as an occasional treat.
Like all boys of that age, he traded busily in these pictures and he tried to play ball with the kids around the lot and the school team. He was not particularly welcome around the pick-up games, because after all what could anyone do with a left handed catcher—right handed catcher's mitts were hard enough to come by—and a weak and timid hitter who shied away from the plate? AND a Dutchman to boot! Damn those Henies! They were torturing babies in Belgium. The papers said so.
But the boy was not war conscious then and those things were not yet his concern. He cared more about the things he read in the papers of the doings of the bright stars of the baseball world, and talking them over with his schoolmates.
But imaginative as boys are in erecting their marvelous castles in the sky, could the boy Gehrig ever in his wildest flight of fancy have seen himself in a Yankee uniform invading the Detroit dugout and taking a swing at the famous Ty Cobb for riding him? Or batting against the great Alexander in a World Series? Or breaking the consecutive games record of that same Everett Scott who played for the Red Sox that year?
Could he imagine that some day Miller Huggins, manager of the New York Yankees would say—"Gehrig—get out there on First Base. You're taking Pipp's place"?
Surely he might have hoped some day to play big league ball, as all kids yearn for fame and fortune. But not even in his dizziest day dream could he have imagined himself hitting in fourth position behind a man who was to become known as the greatest home run hitter the world has ever seen, or foresee that in the end he would become a better player and a greater figure than that same man, Babe Ruth, and be judged by experts to have been the greatest first baseman the game had ever known, rated even above the superb Frank Chance.
Yet all of these things were to happen to the husky, slow-footed kid who was getting his early schooling on the hard, rough sidewalks of New York.
Henry Louis Gehrig was born at 179th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Manhattan, on June 19th, 1903. His parents, Henry and Christina Gehrig were German immigrants who had come to America at the beginning of the century. Henry Gehrig was an artisan, an iron worker, that is, he made ornamental grilles for doors and railings and balustrades—when he could get work at his trade. And when he didn't, he got what work he could, odd jobs and whatnot until he landed a steady job as a janitor.
Mrs. Gehrig was a solid German hausfrau who knew her place and duty in life. That place was the kitchen, the duty to feed and look after her family.
They were strangers in a strange land. America does miracles for the first generation born here. Youngsters of north, or central, or southern European blood seem literally to be born with a liberty bell in one hand a fielder's mitt on the other.
But the old folks who emigrated here did not assimilate as quickly. They clung to the old ways and the old ideas. Much of what went on in this new and teeming land they did not understand, or even attempt to understand, though they recognized the opportunities.
The Gehrigs were decent, sober, uninspired folk who brought up their surviving son in the strict, old-fashioned way. There had been other children who had died, either at birth, or very soon after. Little Looie was a sickly child for a spell too, but somehow the air of the new country finally managed to get into his lungs and swell him out and filled him up, and the wholesome cooking of Mama Gehrig did the rest. Like so many first generation American kids born of foreign parents, he grew to astonishing proportions.
His early home life was European in the sense that there was less affection for Lou than is usual in, let us say, a typical American home. In the German home, the father is king and master, and amongst the poorer people who are engaged in a constant struggle for existence there is even less time for the sentimental relationship between parents and child that marks our modern American families. Henry Louis was no stranger to corporal punishment at the hands of his father.
Early in life he became imbued with a sense of his own worthlessness which he never overcame to the end of his days. He just never understood how he could possibly be any good, or how anybody could really love or care for him. When he married, he used to break his wife's heart with the constant reproaches he cast at himself. Her most difficult task was to build in him some slight approximation of his true worth so that others would not go on taking advantage of him.
As a man, his greatest handicap was that he was super-sensitive, shy, self-accusing, quick to take hurt and slow to recover therefrom.
His boyhood was responsible for this. So was the twig bent. He was a big boy for his age, big and slow witted. Smaller kids would gang up and chase him. They called him "chicken heart," with that refined cruelty of gamin children, threw stones at him, chased him away from their games, wouldn't let him play ball with them, hooted his ineptness at things that came naturally to them, such as running and swimming, and hitting a ball with a stick.
At first this was the normal trial of any kid on any block who is awkward and oversized and has not yet found himself. Eventually, he gained some sort of tolerance, swam with them off the old Coal Barge in the Harlem River near the Old High Bridge, got chased by cops and was once even arrested for swimming without trunks. There was a fine scandal in the Gehrig household when Pop had to come down to the police station and bring him home. Their boy in jail already. A bummer he was becoming with them good-for-nothing loafers. Looie got a good smacking.
But later, when he was fourteen, the war came and the inevitable witch hunts spread even to his neighborhood. His old folks were Germans, and Germans were enemies. That terrible time too had its effect on the character of the boy. Added to his poverty and awkwardness, it drove him still further away from his own kind, pitched him still lower in his own estimation.
There was nothing at which he was very good, neither studies, nor the game of baseball which he had grown to love and which he longed to master. He was an undistinguished fifth wheel on the P. S. 132 ball team, a left handed catcher who couldn't hit the length of his cap, a chicken heart who was so ball shy at the plate that even when he reached college he had to be cured of batting with one foot practically in the dugout.
But no matter what the atmosphere or the fortunes of the Gehrig home, the handicaps of poverty and a low scale of living, one thing must not be forgotten, and Lou Gehrig never forgot it. His mother was insistent that he avail himself of the great opportunity provided by this new land in which they were living ... education. Poor they might be, and insignificant in the social scale, but her Looie had the same opportunity to become educated as the richest boy in the land.
Excerpted from Lou Gehrig by Paul Gallico. Copyright © 1942 Paul Gallico. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Paul Gallico (1897–1976) is best known now as the author of The Poseidon Adventure, which was made into a movie along with several other works of his. His first novel, Snow Goose, has been in print continuously since 1941.
Zachary Michael Jack is the editor of Inside the Ropes: Sportswriters Get Their Game On (Nebraska 2008).
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