baseball, 1923

inducted February 18, 2006

Columbia baseball players have come from almost every state and a number of foreign nations. But the most regarded and revered player in the University's history grew up right here on Manhattan Island, first in Yorktown and then in Washington Heights.

Lou Gehrig was indeed a chosen man. One of four children born to his parents, he was the only one to survive infancy. He starred in football and baseball at Commerce High, hitting a ninth-inning grand-slam home run in an inter-city game at Chicago's Wrigley Field and was recruited to Columbia by Robert Watt `16CC, then graduate manager of athletics.

He continued in both sports at Columbia, starting at fullback and defensive tackle on the gridiron. On the baseball diamond, he soon began to attract attention for his prodigious home runs; the two most talked about were an opposite-field shot into a second-story window of the Journalism School and another that landed across College Walk, then a through city street.

On April 18, 1923, when Yankee Stadium opened for the first time, ace Yankee scout Paul Krichell wasn't on hand to see it; he was at South Field to see Gehrig play. And although the big sophomore pitched that day -- he struck out 17 in a losing effort against Williams, still a Columbia record -- Krichell realized that a man who could hit like Gehrig belonged in a Yankee uniform.

"Columbia Lou", as he would come to be known, hit .444 that season and blasted seven home runs in 19 games. Both records stood for many years; the home run mark didn't fall until Mike Wilhite hit eight 55 years later, in 1978. He set a number of other records that have been surpassed over the years. But Gehrig wouldn't get to add to those totals; within two months after his last game, he had signed with the Yankees for a $1500 bonus.

Many New Yorkers wondered how he could leave Columbia before graduation. Gehrig explained to The New York Times in 1939 that "a fellow has to eat. At the end of my sophomore year my father was taken ill and we had to have money ... when there was no money coming in there was nothing for me to do but sign up."

By June of 1925, he had made the Yankees' starting lineup, where he would remain for 14 years, playing in 2130 consecutive games. He hit 493 home runs, batted .340 and slugged 23 grand-slam home runs, still the major league record. In a 1932 game, he became the first player in the 20th century to hit four home runs in a game.

But his body was failing him and in 1939 he was diagnosed with ALS, later to become known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. He bade farewell to the game in July 4 in one of the most stirring speeches ever uttered in sports. Although he never played again, he remained with the team the rest of that season.

Gehrig was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in a special election and his number was retired, the first professional athlete ever to receive that honor. In January 1940, he became a member of the Parole Board, only to relinquish the job in the spring of 1941 when his illness intensified. He died in his sleep on June 2, 1941, 17 days short of his 38th birthday.