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Today I read Dan Schlossberg’s great article, “Gehrig’s image endures, 75 years after ‘luckiest man’, USA Today, July 4, 2014. While Schlossberg was not approaching the life of Lou Gehrig from a point of being a great teammate, the lessons jump off the page. Please read his moving tribute (quoted often below) to a great person, baseball player, and team player.
Note: I originally posted this article on LinkedIn on July 4, 2014.
On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig, dying at the age of 36, walked to a microphone and spoke 277 words. The most memorable phrase came in the second sentence, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. “That phrase stated Gehrig’s life philosophy.
Lou Gehrig was a superstar. He is best known for his consecutive game record, 2,130 straight starts (later passed by Cal Ripken). He hit 493 homers, drove in 1,990 runs and had a career batting average of .340. He had an American League record of 184 RBI in one year. He set a record with 23 grand slam home runs. He was a model of consistency. Seven times he had 200 hits and 100 walks in a season. Not to mention two MVPs and producing a Triple Crown!
Yet perhaps Gehrig’s greatest contribution is the lessons he taught on how to be a great teammate.
Lesson 1: Lou Gehrig taught us that great team mates are often overshadowed by other people or situations.
Marty Appel, author of Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss, stated, “When Gehrig gave his speech, it was the first time many of the people in the ballpark ever heard him speak.” Even though Gehrig was a Columbia University graduate, he felt no need to be in the limelight. As a result, he lived his life in the shadows.
Shadow 1: Ruth
Gehrig said of the shadows, “It’s a pretty big shadow,” Gehrig said. “I always knew that as long as I was following Babe to the plate I could have gone up there and stood on my head. No one would have noticed the difference. When the Babe was through swinging, whether he hit one or fanned, nobody paid any attention to the next hitter. They were all talking about what the Babe had done.”
Gehrig did some things Ruth couldn’t match: a four-homer game, a Triple Crown and stand-alone records of 500 RBI over a three-year span and 23 career grand slams. But Gehrig never escaped from the shadow of Babe Ruth. For example, when Gehrig batted .545 in the 1928 World Series, Ruth hit .625. Only after Babe’s career was winding down did Gehrig win a home-run title outright.
Shadow 2: DiMaggio
In 1936, a year after Ruth left the Yankees, Gehrig found himself playing in another shadow. This one belonged to a rookie, Joe DiMaggio. Even though DiMaggio was no ordinary rookie, Gehrig was once again placed in the shadows of another. Not the first time potential overshadowed performance!
Shadow 3: Best performance ever
Then there was June 3, 1932, when Gehrig gave his finest individual performance, becoming the first player this century to hit four home runs in a game. Again, he was overshadowed. The bigger story in New York that day was that the legendary John McGraw, in his 31st year as Giants manager, had resigned.
Moral: Great and consistent performance is not always recognized or appreciated in the moment.
Lesson 2: Lou Gehrig taught us that team players are concerned most with how the team performs
“He always said he didn’t care about home runs but RBIs were his baby.” (Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig). Consistently driving in runs to help his team win was the single most important individual metric to Gehrig. And he did that well! For 13 straight seasons he knocked in 100 runs and scored 100.
Moral: Great teammates excel in doing the things that make their team win
Lesson 3: Lou Gehrig showed us that teamwork is not based on relationships.
At the height of greatness, Ruth and Gehrig forged a deep friendship. Off season, Ruth and Gehrig spent much of their time together. Yet a squabble between family members soured their relationship. Ruth sent a message to Gehrig after the incident: “Don’t ever speak to me again off the ball field.” For years the Bambino and The Iron Horse didn’t talk to each other, until Lou Gehrig Day (see picture above), when they embraced again like best friends. But Gehrig never let the feud impact his performance on the field or color his comments about Babe Ruth.
Moral: Great teammates may suffer disappointment with individuals but their performance will not be affected
Lesson 4: Lou Gehrig taught us that you perform at your best even when it is not something you are good at or want to do
Perhaps the hardest thing Gehrig ever had to do was give his famous speech. “We’re all trained to play the game, and we’re comfortable at being asked to do things during the game,” Cal Ripken says. “But standing in front of a full house and talking not only to them but to the whole country took a lot of courage.”
It was July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium, a little more than two months after he played his final game, less than a month after he had learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. There was Gehrig, surrounded by his teammates from the 1927 and 1939 Yankees. Shaking with emotion, he fought back tears as he kept his eyes focused on the ground. For a moment it looked as if Gehrig wouldn’t make it to the microphone. But manager Joe McCarthy whispered a few words to his favorite player, and Gehrig regained his composure. (“Gehrig legacy one of irony”, by Larry Schwartz, ESPN).
Moral: Even great teammates sometimes need some quiet encouragement.
Lesson 5: Lou Gehrig taught us you give your best until it is no longer possible
Broken fingers, lumbago, nor myriad lesser could stop Gehrig during his career. But in 1938, he had symptoms of ALS throughout the season. He still hit .295 with 29 home runs and 114 runs batted in, even as his muscles were melting away game by game. “It’s a miracle he played at all in 1938. I think it’s the greatest achievement in the history of baseball. (Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig).
Moral: Great teammates fight through obstacles even when others do not understand what they are going through
Lesson 6: Lou Gehrig taught us that great teammates are most concerned about their impact on others
If the lasting characteristic of a true leader is their impact on others, Gehrig stands head and shoulders above his other, more famous, Yankee teammates.
Gehrig put others’ interests above his own. He accepted an offer from Mayor LaGuardia to serve on the New York City Parole Commission after he retired (and while he was dying). The pay was little more than his 1939 World Series share. Gehrig did this because he felt wayward teens might be motivated to straighten themselves out. He was right: a juvenile delinquent named Rocco Barbella later became middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano.
Today the impact of Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, lives on. Even though he died at the young age of 37, Gehrig still makes an impact on those who study his life.
Moral: Great teammate’s legacy resides not in their performance but what they teach others about how to live.
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