SABR

Eleanor Gehrig

This article was written by Tara Krieger.

No one chooses to become a professional widow, and Eleanor Gehrig derived little satisfaction in being called one. Yet few ballplayers’ wives maintained a level of such prominence so long after their husband’s death as they had when he was alive. Mrs. Lou Gehrig was married less than eight years; she was a widow for nearly forty-three. Upon her passing, some headlines proclaimed her “First Lady of the Yankees,” for her constant presence at the team’s Old Timers’ Days spanning four decades.i

“I would not have traded two minutes of the joy and grief with that man for two decades of anything with another,” she wrote in her memoir, My Luke and I. “Happy or sad, filled with great expectations or great frustrations, we had attained it for whatever brief instant that fate had decided.”ii

The romance between Eleanor Twitchell and Lou Gehrig has been trumpeted as the great American Love Story: the mismatch of a former Chicago “society” girl and a shy immigrants’ son. However, true happiness proves fleeting, when a mysterious fatal illness comes between them. Their relationship didn’t need any special pathos, but decades before “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” Pride of the Yankees provided plenty. Eleanor, naturally, had approval rights in the film, produced by Samuel Goldwyn a year after her husband’s death.

“You know, when I first sat down in the projection room,” she said, “I thought to myself, ‘I won’t look at the picture. I cannot bear to have those memories come back to haunt me.’ But I knew that I must see if the story of Lou Gehrig had been handled correctly.

“Well,” she continued, “I didn’t ask for one solitary deletion or addition. I accepted the picture exactly as it was made. That’s how good I think it was.”iii

Sometimes life proves more powerful than art. Eleanor Grace Twitchell was born on March 6, 1904 in Chicago, a thousand miles from the streets and sandlots of upper Manhattan where Henry Louis Gehrig, a year older, learned how to wallop a baseball. Her father, Frank Bradford Twitchell, claimed to be a descendant of the first governor of Massachusetts and was a “dead ringer” for Tyrone Poweriv; her mother, Nellie Mulvaney Twitchell, came from a Canadian-Irish background; they married before she turned eighteen.

Frank Twitchell was truly a self-made man—his first job was as a price-maker, moving the family around the country to set the odds on horse betting, which he did “to keep from remaining the idle poor,” Eleanor wrote.v The family had eventually settled down on Chicago’s South Side when Eleanor’s younger brother, Frank, was born in 1910.

The Twitchells climbed another rung on the social ladder when their patriarch became manager of the well-known Heidelberg Café, and another when his connections led to him being appointed the official concessionaire of the Chicago parks. They relocated to the more affluent South Shore.

Frank Twitchell’s success was so public that Nellie Twitchell discovered from a newspaper headline his extramarital affair with an assistant. Her attempt to speak with a divorce lawyer a few years later was met with disdain—Frank Twitchell kept the family comfortable financially, the lawyer reasoned, so “What the hell do you want to divorce a guy like that for?”vi She returned home to stitch up her marriage.

Caught in the crossfire of increasing tension between her parents, Eleanor didn’t recount her adolescence as an unhappy one. She spent her free time ice skating (and was apparently fairly good at it),vii riding horses, playing golf, sneaking into the Palace or the Majestic to see the latest vaudeville show.

“I wasn’t a tomboy, even with all the sports activity,” she wrote. “But the dainty little-girl outfits and the dainty little-girl conversations of my schoolmates struck me as a waste of time.”viii

Nor was she much of a student. While Lou Gehrig was setting records for perfect attendance in grade school en route to an athletic scholarship at Columbia University, Eleanor was setting records for truancy—twenty-one days straight.ix

Her closest friends were a pair of sisters who had married brothers. Mary was married to Joe Grabiner, a prolific professional gambler; Dorothy was married to Harry Grabiner, the secretary and vice-president of the Chicago White Sox. So Eleanor learned to keep score at the ballpark and at the racetrack, and had fringe encounters with the bigwigs of organized crime—one of her poker partners was Mrs. John Torrio, the wife of Al Capone’s predecessor.

“I suppose, in the 1920s, you could say I fiddled while Chicago burned,” she wrote. “I was young and rather innocent, but I smoked, played poker, drank bathtub gin along with everybody else, collected $5 a week in allowance from my father, spent $100 a week, made up the difference from winter-book jackpots at the racetrack that filled a dresser drawer with close to $10,000 at one point, and learned to become a big tipper.”x

Like the Roaring ’20s, it couldn’t last. Frank Twitchell, never a big drinker, began to pound down the Scotch, perhaps as a reaction to some poor investments and mistresses who wiped him out. When his lease on the Chicago parks concessions came up for renewal, his bid to retain the business was rejected. “The Twitchells were ahead of the times,” Eleanor observed sardonically. “We were going broke before the Depression.”xi Frank Twitchell eventually skipped town for New Orleans, succumbing to a stroke in 1934, somewhat estranged from his family.

Eleanor, too, had to scale back on her parties and nightclubs upon diagnosis of a mild heart condition. Tolstoy and Voltaire replaced her nine-iron; Gregg Business School courses replaced the race books. Her few months’ experience with shorthand and a few white lies landed her a job as the secretary to the general manager at Chicago’s branch of Saks Fifth Avenue, in March 1929. When the stock market crash left many destitute and jobless seven months later Eleanor was still pulling in $30 a week as the “director of personnel,” firing employees the store could no longer afford to keep. When eventually even “Miss Twitchell had been sacked by Saks”xii in 1931, Eleanor immediately found work as a secretary for the Century of Progress—the planning committee for the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair—at a 50% increase in salary.

Among the other fortunate few gainfully employed in the age of “brother, can you spare a dime?” was Lou Gehrig. He had turned his football scholarship at Columbia University into a full-time position at first base with the New York Yankees, and a salary high enough to raise his working-class German-born parents out of their Washington Heights tenement into the Westchester suburbs. He had not missed a day of work since before June 1, 1925.

There are at least two extended first-person accounts about how Eleanor Twitchell became acquainted with Lou Gehrig. One, penned for Collier’s in 1935, has the benefit of contemporary recollection; the more “official” memoir, My Luke and I, co-written with Joseph Durso in 1976, lacks much of the puffing and gloss popular in old-time nonfiction.xiii They may have met at a party in the fall of 1927,xiv or at Comiskey Park, which Eleanor frequented as a guest of the Grabiners, only “because it was the Thing To Do.”xv

“That young guy has a great future,” she was told.xvi

They had little contact, until 1931, when Eleanor’s poker companion Kitty McHie urged her to stop by her penthouse apartment for a beer. Lou Gehrig would be there, she said.xvii

“Big, handsome, successful, I thought. All those things,” Eleanor wrote, “And, as luck would have it, painfully shy.”xviii However, that night, “The ‘shy one’ suddenly became the bold one, singled me out and spent the whole time giving me a shy man’s version of the rush.”xix

Rush or no, the Yankees had a midnight curfew, and Gehrig was one to follow the rules. Feeling obligated to leave; he offered to walk Eleanor home, then “abruptly said good night and disappeared into the dark.”xx

Eleanor was stunned by this display of affection—or lack thereof—but few could mistake Gehrig’s intentions when a week later a package arrived for Eleanor containing a diamond-cut crystal necklace he’d brought back from a barnstorming voyage to Japan. From there, a correspondence ensued, that blossomed into love over the next year.

There may not have been an official proposal. According to the Collier’s article, it happened on the way home from dinner with a friend from Detroit; Gehrig “began to stutter to himself, saying incoherent things.” Finally, Eleanor broke in: “Honey, I know what you’re trying to say, and the answer is ‘yes.’”xxi

In My Luke and I, Eleanor presents a much more dramatic picture. Following a misunderstanding over the telephone the previous night, Lou showed up outside her office window first thing in the morning,

motioning me with open arms and that mile-wide grin. I did a double-take and raced downstairs, and then, in front of the whole Century of Progress staff arriving for work, we kissed madly in the center of Grant Park. We went to the Drake Hotel for breakfast. I don’t remember who proposed to whom. We just plotted and planned.xxii

She followed him to Comiskey Park that afternoon, where “You bet your life he hit a home run, strictly following the script in the corniest way imaginable.”xxiii

The press devoured information about the woman who had won the heart of the Yankees’ most eligible bachelor. Photos of Eleanor were plastered alongside the daily Yankees-White Sox box score; articles were written speculating about the bride-to-be and the upcoming nuptials. She was sometimes (erroneously) reported as having attended the University of Wisconsin—and of course, she was always a huge baseball fan.xxiv

Often-published half-truths and misinformation came with the territory of being involved with a celebrity. Eleanor had read much about Gehrig’s fondness for pickled eels, and she worried that her inability even to “know how to begin” to prepare them would send him into a batting slump and destroy their relationship. Lou only laughed: “Mom fixes ’em up for the boys,” he said. “Babe Ruth likes them. But I can’t stand ’em.”xxv (Eleanor allegedly hired a German cook after they were married to make up for her inadequacies in the kitchen.xxvi)

Lou’s parents presented a larger hurdle. Eleanor never quite felt comfortable in the Gehrig home, where the family would converse in German, of which she knew none. And Christina Gehrig, whose relationship with her son seemed borderline Oedipal, frequently clashed with her daughter-in-law to-be. “Mom” Gehrig—“formidable, built something like a lady wrestler”xxvii—had broken up Lou’s previous relationships with women before, and Eleanor was yet another intruder swooping in to steal away her only surviving child.xxviii

To smooth the transition, Eleanor agreed to move in with the Gehrigs in New Rochelle while searching for an apartment. Instead, it nearly broke them—one night, Eleanor decided “the hell with it all” and called off the engagement.xxix They had reconciled by the time they reached the ferry across Long Island Sound. However, Eleanor would stay with her aunt and uncle in Freeport in the days leading up to the wedding, scheduled for the Saturday evening following the Yankees’ next-to-last game of the 1933 season.

The day before they were to be married, Friday, September 29, Eleanor was directing plumbers and carpet-layers around their new apartment when Lou burst in after the latest row with his mother. He’d had it with Mom Gehrig coming between them and picked up the receiver. Within minutes, the Mayor of New Rochelle was on his way to pronounce them husband and wife amid a tangled mass of dust and furniture. The mayor’s motorcade then escorted the newlywed couple to Yankee Stadium for the afternoon game, where Lou went 0-for-4. A small reception was held in Long Island the following day, as planned; Bill Dickey was the only Yankees player in attendance; Mom Gehrig almost didn’t attend.xxx

To ensure he hadn’t forgotten about his parents, Lou invested all his savings into a trust fund for his mother. Then he handed over his checkbook to Eleanor. “Our old age is in your hands,” he told her.xxxi

So was his image, which had some rough edges. Eleanor had few qualms about spending money at Abercrombie & Fitch to replace her husband’s threadbare clothes with a shiny new wardrobe that he had previously been too tightfisted to purchase. She encouraged him to hold out into Spring Training for a higher salary on his annual contract when he had previously been so afraid to negotiate he would sign right away. And she persuaded him to embrace his celebrity, rather than hide from it—parking his car closer to the Yankee Stadium main entrance, for instance, so he could sign autographs after the game.

Eleanor also introduced him to arts and culture, particularly opera, where he would get excited about Wagner, because he could understand the German. Her love of music even inspired a forgettable song that she co wrote with songwriter Fred Fisher, “I Can’t Get to First Base With You.” xxxii

And she became a little too enamored with her suddenly public life. According to Maye Lazzeri, wife of Tony, “There were times when Eleanor was impressed with the fact that she was Mrs. Lou Gehrig.” Mrs. Lazzeri recalled a particular incident at the ballpark where Eleanor had to be reminded of her place: “‘Listen Eleanor,’ I said, ‘I’m only married to Tony Lazzeri. I have nothing to do with all the home runs and the honors. I’m just lucky I’ve got him. And the quicker you learn that you’re not Lou Gehrig, the better off you’re going to be.’” June O’Dea Gomez, Lefty’s wife, also had an unfavorable reaction to some of Eleanor’s “highfalutin remarks.”xxxiii

“Looking back, I realize Eleanor was young and it was easy for her to lose perspective,” Mrs. Lazzeri continued, however, noting that she and Eleanor became close after they both lost their husbands prematurely. “Her every step met with adulation from the fans and the press. To be fair, she was marvelous to Lou.”xxxiv

Gehrig was enraptured with his new bride—perhaps it is no coincidence that in his first season after marriage, 1934, he won the Triple Crown (.363 batting average, 49 homers, 165 RBIs). A few years later, he had all the hardware he collected from his numerous awards—rings and stick pins representing pennants, world championships, All-Star appearances and other accomplishments—melted down to make a bracelet for Eleanor.

There was another side to Gehrig she came to understand – he could be overly sensitive. Eleanor could instantly tell if the Yankees had lost that day by Lou’s demeanor when she picked him up from the ballpark – “silence for the half-hour ride to New Rochelle,” and he’d still be “playing it all over again through dinner.xxxv As a new couple, they were obviously learning how to relate to each other’s moods and habits.

Eleanor’s inadvertent callousness may have widened the growing rift between Gehrig and his one-time friend and idol Babe Ruth. The home run twins were barely speaking to each other when they embarked with several other major league stars on a barnstorming tour of Japan, wives in tow. Onboard the ship, Eleanor ran into Claire Ruth, who invited her for a drink in their cabin, where she found Claire’s husband, “the resplendent Babe, sitting like a Buddha figure, surrounded by an empire of caviar and champagne.”xxxvi In the two hours that Eleanor had gone “missing,” Lou feared that she had fallen overboard. When he found out where she’d been, Gehrig refused to accept any sort of peace offering from the Bambino, who had just completed his final season in pinstripes.xxxvii

The Gehrigs extended their tour across the Orient around the world, making stops in Singapore, Bombay, Cairo, Naples, Rome, Munich, Paris, London. And according to Eleanor, they made a pact that regardless of how well (or poorly) he was playing, Lou Gehrig would hang up his spikes for good on June 19, 1939, his thirty-sixth birthday.xxxviii

Perhaps they were looking forward to starting a family, but they never had children. Eleanor may have had trouble conceiving. By early 1939, they had spoken of adoption, but according to Lou Gehrig, his mother “wouldn’t have any of that. She said she didn’t want a grandson if it wasn’t a Gehrig. ”xxxix

Gehrig proved uncomfortable with the uncertainty of a ballplayer’s life, especially in the team owner-controlled days of the reserve clause. And he was superstitious. When Eleanor “went all out and decorated wall to wall” their new apartment in Larchmont (where they moved from New Rochelle a few years later), he was distraught.

“My God,” he said, “you know I might be traded at any moment?”xlHe never was, of course, and by 1938, when Yankees were in the middle of what would be their third straight championship season. Gehrig, their captain and cleanup hitter, was on the verge of playing his 2,000th consecutive game. Eleanor playfully urged him to quit at 1,999, for the headlines it would make. The Yankees planned a ceremony for him, but “all they’ll do is hang a horseshoe of flowers around your neck,” she said. Gehrig appalled at the suggestion left for the ballpark, and returned to an uproarious Eleanor that evening wearing a giant horseshoe and an embarrassed grin.xli

In spite of the Yankees’ continued success, Lou had less to laugh about as the summer turned to winter then spring. At first there were just prolonged batting slumps and slowness afoot attributed to poor mechanics, or maybe just age. But Eleanor began noticing little things, at home, kitchenware inexplicably slipping through his strong hands, the “unnatural clump” his foot made stepping off the curb,xlii losing his balance on ice skates more frequently than usual.

A doctor diagnosed Gehrig with a gallbladder condition during the offseason. During Spring Training, despite taking extra weeks of conditioning, he looked worse. Eleanor feared a brain tumor. On May 2, 1939 in Detroit, he removed himself from the Yankees lineup after 2,130 consecutive games because he felt he was hurting the team. He wrote Eleanor:

It was inevitable, although I dreaded the day, and my thoughts were with you constantly—how the thing would affect you and I—that was the big question and the most important thought underlying everything. I broke before the game because I thought so much of you. Not because I didn’t know you are the bravest kind of partner but because my inferiority grabbed me and made me wonder and ponder if I could possibly prove myself worthy of you.xliii

Friends of Eleanor’s had a contact at the Mayo Clinic, and she arranged for Lou to secretly deviate from the Yankees’ road trip and fly from Chicago to the facility in Rochester, Minnesota. Then she asked her headstrong husband if he would do her the “favor” of going. “Yes, pal,” he said. And he went.xliv

Eleanor invited over sportswriter Fred Lieb and his wife, Mary, close friends of Lou’s, the day the diagnosis was revealed. The phone rang, and Eleanor closed the bedroom door.

“I guess I need a drink, a real stiff drink,” she said upon returning. “You know what that Dutchman just told me? ‘Don’t worry, Ellie, I have a fifty-fifty chance to live’—just as though he were asking about the weather in Westchester County. Something is really wrong with him, and I think his spinal cord is affected.”xlv

Eleanor knew more than she was letting on, because the doctors had already told her—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is fatal, incurable and irreversible. She instructed the doctors at Mayo to dull the blow. So her husband learned he had a sort of “chronic infantile paralysis,” and that there was a fifty-fifty chance of arresting the disease. His playing career was over.

The date was June 19, 1939—Lou’s thirty-sixth birthday.

Two weeks later, on July 4, Lou Gehrig stood before the masses at Yankee Stadium, a broken man considering himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He thanked everyone who had made a difference in his life, including Eleanor for having “been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed.”xlvi

Gehrig traveled with the Yankees as a non-playing captain until the end of the 1939 season, after which Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia offered him a job at the New York City Parole Commission To satisfy the residency requirements of being a municipal employee, the Gehrigs relocated from Larchmont to a two-story house in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.xlvii

Eleanor thereafter became Lou’s secretary and personal assistant, typing his dictated letters and signing his name when he could no longer grasp a pen; turning the pages of his books when he could no longer hold them; lighting his cigarettes when he could no longer strike a match; chauffeuring him to lower Manhattan each day when he could no longer drive. She also became a sort of gatekeeper, secretly corresponding and conspiring with Gehrig’s doctors at the Mayo Clinic to keep her husband in the dark over his illness’s actual prognosis.

“I feel we must all lie like mad,” she wrote at the time. “I want him to keep a thread of hope; there is no point in adding mental torture to the horrible experience he is now going through.”xlviii

If Gehrig ever fully comprehended it was all a ruse, he put up enough of a front that he wholeheartedly believed it.xlix He was the type that if he thought he was going to be a burden on me, he might take that extra pill,” Eleanor justified years later. “If he had gotten his hands on a medical book and found out what I was in for, he wouldn’t have allowed it.”l

In the meantime, in spite of all the doctors and medical assistance, the Gehrigs staged distractions from Lou’s deteriorating condition. They hired a butler, and a maid, but neither was allowed near Lou’s room. Nellie Twitchell, who also moved in, delivered his meals when he was confined to bed. There was a constant carousel of parties and visitors, including comedian Pitzy Katz, Fred Fisher, actress Tallulah Bankhead, sportswriter and neighbor John Kieran (who sometimes featured Lou in his columns),li and old Yankees teammates, over the course of those final two years.

Lou gradually weakened—“like a great clock winding down,”lii—and Eleanor never left his side as the end neared. He slipped away quietly, the night of June 2, 1941, surrounded by Eleanor, his parents, and his mother-in-law.

“The most beatified expression instantly spread across Lou’s face,” wrote Eleanor, “and I knew the precise moment he had gone.”liii

The funeral two days later was a short, private affair, with about 100 people in attendance and no eulogy “because you all knew him,” the reverend said.liv The Associated Press reported Eleanor remarkably composed—“rigid and desperately calm.”lv

As became clear, Eleanor was far from fine. Her way of coping with loss was to devote herself to promoting her husband’s legacy—becoming his spokesperson and serving as the connection to all those who had worshipped the great Iron Horse while he was alive. , She was always introduced as “Mrs. Lou Gehrig.”

“The widow of a national hero has an uneasy public sorrow,”lvi Eleanor wrote, which perhaps explains why she never remarried. Who could possibly devote oneself to another when your husband’s famous specter hangs over your every obligation?

“I kept up all right as far as appearances are concerned,” she continued of those first few years, “with the help of Lou’s old friends and associates. I did what everyone expected. Whenever tributes were paid to Lou, they’d want me to appear and speak; I was asked to raise funds for charities, give speeches lay cornerstones. . . . [sic] But behind my closed door, in the long nights, I thought at times I would never find peace.”lvii

Pride of the Yankees was the first big test. Eleanor received $30,000 for the rights of Samuel Goldwyn’s production studio to Gehrig’s story. Gary Cooper played Lou (“Gary studied every picture of Lou’s. He had everyone [sic] of his mannerisms down to a science and he is so like my husband in the picture that there were times when I felt I couldn’t bear it.”lviii); twenty-four-year-old Teresa Wright played Eleanor.

“When Sam first told me that Teresa would play me I felt that she was much too young. I said, ‘Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur or an actress with more experience would be better.’ But now I know no one could do better, or even as well as little Teresa. Of course she’s prettier and younger but then no woman could object to that, could they?”lix

To add to the realism, Eleanor lent various personal items to be used in the production, including the bracelet Lou had made for her. The movie grossed over $3 million and was one of the top ten films of 1942, nominated for eleven Oscars, including both Cooper’s and Wright’s performances.

During World War II, Eleanor used Gehrig’s wholesome all-American image to sell war bonds, raising over $6 million by auctioning off some of Lou’s memorabilia. She also joined the local Red Cross, chauffeuring the disabled, for which she received Presidential recognition.lx

Through Christy Walsh, her husband’s agent, Eleanor secured a position with the All-America Football Conference, first as secretary-treasurer, then, after she resigned because (ironically) she “couldn’t even balance my own bank account,” she was somehow promoted to vice president in 1946.lxi

But Eleanor’s greatest contribution came with her tireless efforts to promote ALS research—if she couldn’t bring Lou back, she could at least attempt to slay the “tyrant” that had killed him. Partnering with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, she testified before Congress to fund research in various debilitating paralytic diseases. She would eventually will much of her estate to the cause. To this day, the Eleanor and Lou Gehrig MDA/ALS Multidisciplinary Care Center at Columbia University (Lou Gehrig’s alma mater) remains a hub for clinical trials and treatment for ALS and related paralytic diseases.

The lack of companionship often gnawed at her, though, long after she moved into an apartment on East Fifty-Third Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. She sent for her mother back in Chicago, and Nellie Twitchell began making the necessary preparations to move in with her.

“In the meantime,” Eleanor wrote, “I was thoroughly alone—for even the closest friend that a couple has shared is peculiarly remote when one is a half-couple.”

Mrs. Twitchell’s sunny presence helped Eleanor to heal. “After all, she was a widow, too!” Eleanor wrote. “The love she could no longer pour out on one life-partner, she rained on all, heroes or hall boys, celebrities or scrubwomen.

“That was the ticket, I realized. My own widow mother could show me a few short-cuts to adjustment, back to the path of the world, away from the bleak detours of Eleanor Gehrig.”lxii

Relations with her in-laws, however, never improved, as a dispute arose over the division of Lou’s estate. Lou had left behind the entirety of his $171,251 of assets to Eleanor, the executrix of his will, but had bequeathed the interest received from stock investments and monthly payments from a $20,000 life insurance policy to his parents. Heinrich and Christina Gehrig believed that Eleanor was withholding these payments and sued for $5,188.53 in August 1943. The matter was settled privately, the discord between the Gehrigs and their daughter-in-law never resolved lxiii

Another disagreement arose over Lou’s ashes. A plan was quietly in the works to move them from their resting place in Valhalla, New York, to underneath the Baseball Hall of Fame. As of 1949, Eleanor favored it, since she had gotten tired of the throngs of fans crowding his grave daily in Kensico Cemetery.lxiv But when word leaked in one of the newspapers of plans to start a shrine for the remains of baseball immortals in Cooperstown, she swiftly changed her mind, further distancing her from Christina Gehrig.lxv (Since Eleanor had legal control, what Lou’s mother felt didn’t much matter.)lxvi

The one-time social butterfly retreated into her cocoon, as she grew older. Days would pass that Eleanor spent locked away in her apartment with nothing but her memories to console her. And she drank heavily—sometimes seemingly having little regard for her own personal safety. Her friend and attorney George Pollack (who would become executor of her estate) once became so worried when he found her passed out drunk that he rushed her to the hospital. Another time, she let her mattress catch fire from a lighted cigarette and the place almost went up in smoke.

A concerned Pollack encouraged her to write a memoir, hoping it might lift her spirits. My Luke and I afforded her some reprieve, and the book was successful enough it led to a television movie, A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story, starring Blythe Danner and Edward Herrmann. The film aired on NBC in 1978lxvii to mixed reviews. Because Eleanor had signed away the film rights to her life story for Pride of the Yankees, she ended up losing at least $35,000 in the process to buy them back from the studio.lxviii

Eleanor Gehrig died on her eightieth birthday, on March 6, 1984, leaving behind no survivors lxix and few friends. Pollack and his wife, Dorothy, were astonished to find that in spite of the sizeable tent assembled at Kensico Cemetery (in expectation of a large turnout for the death of a public figure); they were the only mourners in attendance at her funeral.lxx

Eleanor bequeathed all her husband’s baseball possessions to the Hall of Fame.lxxi She left $100,000 to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and another $100,000 to the Rip Van Winkle Fund for ALS research.lxxii Pollack licensed the Gehrig name and likeness to the Curtis Management Group to increase those initial donations; by 1995, the ALS fund at Columbia Presbyterian had more than tripled.lxxiii

If the fruits of her estate someday help bring about a cure for ALS, perhaps those four-plus lonely decades Mrs. Lou Gehrig spent keeping her husband relevant will be justified as more than the long aftermath of a tragic marriage.

 

Notes

i See, e.g., Obituary. “Eleanor Gehrig, Yankees’ ‘First Lady’.” Associated Press, as printed in The Day (New London, Conn.). March 8, 1984.

ii Gehrig, Eleanor and Joseph Durso. My Luke and I. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co, 1976, p. 229.

iii Parsons, Louella O. “Film of Lou’s Life Is Approved By Mrs. Gehrig.” INS, as printed in The Deseret News (Salt Lake City). June 8, 1942. In Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), author Jonathan Eig offers a perspective of Eleanor’s strong say in the movie’s production, concerning wardrobe, Gehrig’s parents, and his Farewell Speech. See p. 360. Eleanor Gehrig’s own memoir, My Luke and I, would later be made into its own television movie, “A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story,” in 1978.

iv My Luke and I, pp. 50, 52.

v My Luke and I, p. 51.

vi My Luke and I, pp. 73-74.

vii “‘Tribune’ Playgrounds Skating Tourney Semi-Finals.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 9, 1919.

viii My Luke and I, p. 58.

ix My Luke and I, p. 59.

x My Luke and I, p. 94.

xi My Luke and I, p. 103.

xii My Luke and I, p. 108.

xiii Particularly in ghostwritten pieces, which it’s unclear whether the Collier’s piece was, sportswriters often put words into their subjects’ mouths and injected their own “facts” to fill in the gaps that may not have been wholly true, but made for good copy.

xiv Gehrig, Mrs. Lou. “Baseball Bride.” Collier’s, June 1, 1935, pp. 14, 30.

xv My Luke and I, p. 137.

xvi My Luke and I, p. 135.

xvii My Luke and I, p. 134.

xviii My Luke and I, p. 134.

xix My Luke and I, p. 135.

xx My Luke and I, p. 136.

xxi“Baseball Bride,” p. 30.

xxii My Luke and I, p. 140.

xxiii My Luke and I, p. 141. The book is somewhat unclear which game this was. Eleanor's recollection seems to indicate it was during the two-game series the Yankees played in Chicago on May 8 and May 10, 1933, but Gehrig did not homer on either of those days. However, the Yankees returned to Chicago for a series in mid-June, in which Gehrig did hit a home run in two of the four games. Perhaps Eleanor's memory combined both events.

xxiv “Gehrig to Wed Chicago Girl.” The Daily Argus (Mount Vernon, N.Y.). September 29, 1933.

xxv “Baseball Bride,” p. 14.

xxvi “Baseball Bride,” p. 30.

xxvii My Luke and I, p. 144.

xxviii Lou Gehrig was the only one of four children to survive infancy.

xxix My Luke and I, p. 150.

xxx Lieb, Fred. Baseball As I Have Known It. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996 ed. p. 179.

xxxi My Luke and I, p. 158.

xxxii Fred Fisher a popular and prolific songwriter in the early 20th century, works included Chicago, Peg O’ My Heart and I’d Rather Be Blue Over You, with Billy Rose.

xxxiii Gomez, Vernona and Lawrence Goldstone. Lefty: An American Odyssey. New York: Ballantine Books, 2012. p. 172.

xxxiv Ibid. Tony Lazzeri died after a fall down the stairs, caused by a heart attack (or possibly an epileptic seizure) at age 42 in 1946.

xxxv My Luke and I, p. 180.

xxxvi My Luke and I, p. 190.

xxxvii Some historians have suggested that the ever-womanizing Babe and Eleanor wound up in bed together. Seeing as Eleanor was the only first-hand source to recount the incident, such a suggestion must remain speculative.

xxxviii My Luke and I, p. 199. Confusingly, Eleanor also repeatedly asserts that the “pact” was for Gehrig to retire at the age when most ballplayers are considered over the hill, thirty-five—which would have been June 19 of the previous year. Seeing as Gehrig played the entire 1938 season into 1939, this author chooses to believe that if what Eleanor claims is true (that is, not just a date retroactively convenient to the narrative), either she or her co writer Joseph Durso got their math wrong, especially considering there are several glaring errors regarding dates and events throughout the book. Eig’s book offers the perspective that Gehrig wanted to play as long as possible to build his “statistical legacy.” Whether retirement was to be in 1939 or beyond, one point stretches credulity; Gehrig, the consummate team player, almost certainly would have never quit in the middle of a season as Eleanor suggests. p. 180.

xxxix Lieb, p. 180.

xl Cirillo, Joan J. “Theirs Was a Real Life Love Story.” The Herald Statesman (Yonkers, N.Y.). October 10, 1976. p. F13.

xli My Luke and I, pp. 206-07.

xlii Lieb, p. 182.

xliii Robinson, Ray. “Lou Gehrig: Columbia Legend and American Hero.” Columbia Magazine, Fall 2001. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/alumni/Magazine/Fall2001/Gehrig.html.

xliv My Luke and I, pp. 7-8.

xlv Lieb, p. 181.

xlvi Various transcripts of Gehrig’s farewell speech.

xlvii According to Eleanor, the house cost $175 in monthly rent, but since she controlled the family checkbook, she told her stingy husband it only cost $75. My Luke and I, p. 19.

xlviii Letter from Eleanor Gehrig to Dr. Paul O’Leary of the Mayo Clinic, April 9, 1940. http://espn.go.com/mlb/flash/gehrigletters#/letters/seekinghope/eleanor/letter26. In a postscript, Eleanor beseeched O’Leary to write to her under a pen name (Mrs. E. G. Barrow) if he were to respond. O’Leary obliged.

xlix Perhaps Eleanor was not the only one in the Gehrig household to carry on a ruse. Teammate Tommy Henrich, on visiting Gehrig, felt Gehrig knew his fate. Eig, p. 355. Bill Terry had the same impression. Robinson, Ray. Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig in His Time. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990. p.272.

l Cirillo, p. F13.

li See, e.g., Sports of the Times, “With an Assist for Lou Gehrig,” New York Times, March 12, 1941 “Looking Around with Lou Gehrig.” New York Times. March 16, 1941.

lii My Luke and I, p. 228.

liii My Luke and I, p. 228.

liv “Simple Rites Mark Funeral Services for Lou Gehrig.”Associated Press, as printed in the St. Petersburg Times. June 5, 1941. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=UeNOAAAAIBAJ&sjid=X00DAAAAIBAJ&pg=2384,7032962&dq=gehrig&hl=en.

lv Ibid.

lvi Gehrig, Eleanor (Mrs. Lou). “Learn, Grow Strong and Keep in Training, He’d Say.” Spokane Daily Chronicle. April 4, 1952. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=TPJXAAAAIBAJ&sjid=TfYDAAAAIBAJ&pg=2622,1683259.

lvii Gehrig, Eleanor (Mrs. Lou). “Learn, Grow Strong ....”

lviii Parsons. Film of Lou’s Life Is Approved By Mrs. Gehrig.”

lix Id.

lx Kashatus, William C. Lou Gehrig: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2004. p. 106.

lxi “Mrs. Gehrig, Football Exec., In Miami to See ‘Hawks, Buy Boat.” The Morning Journal (Daytona Beach, Fla.). November 9, 1946. The AAFC merged into the National Football League after 1949.

lxii Gehrig, Eleanor (Mrs. Lou). “Learn, Grow Strong ....”

lxiii Kashatus, pp. 108-09.

lxiv Kirst, Sean Peter. The Ashes of Lou Gehrig and Other Baseball Essays. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2003. pp. 8, 11.

lxv Heinrich Gehrig, Lou’s father, had died in 1946.

lxvi Around that time, also, a crazed fan attempted to steal the ashes, as Eleanor would recount to her friend and attorney, George Pollack, though Pollack was not sure if the attempt was successful. Her original will had called for her ashes to be mixed with her husband’s upon her death, but when the time came, Pollack didn’t feel comfortable opening the urn, in the event Lou’s ashes had been stolen. So he placed the vase containing Eleanor’s ashes next to Lou’s, and closed the door. Kirst, pp. 11–12.

lxvii Ironically, the World Series preempted the film’s originally scheduled air date on October 9, 1977. As it was, its actual premiere was opposite Super Bowl Sunday.

lxviii Kashatus, p. 112.

lxix Nellie Twitchell died in 1968; brother Frank Twitchell in 1975. Christina Gehrig had passed in 1954.

lxx Kashatus, p. 113.

lxxi Id.

lxxii Kashatus, p. 116.

lxxiii Kashatus, p. 117.

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