While doing the previous look at Bob Meusel, it dawned on me that I’d never actually done a post dedicated to Lou Gehrig. I’m not quite sure why that’s true. I’ve been a big fan of his since I can remember. But it’s time to remedy that oversight.
I suppose that most anybody reading this has a basic understanding of who Gehrig was, so I don’t want to do one of my standard short baseball bios of him. Instead I want to concentrate on some of the things that jump out to me when I look at his career.
One of the first things I note about Gehrig is how good he was early. His first year with more than 30 at bats was 1925. He was 22, hit .295, had 20 home runs, and 68 RBIs. The home run total was fifth in the American League. The 1925 season would also mark the last time he had less than 100 RBIs until his final season in 1939.
It’s amazing how much of an RBI machine Gehrig became over his career. I know a lot of people downgrade RBIs as a “target of opportunity” (you can’t drive him in if he isn’t on base), but I’ll remind you that a player still has to hit the “target” and Gehrig did it an inordinate amount of time and while we’re at it unless you steal home or hit a home run, a run is also a “target of opportunity” (the other guys have to hit the ball when you’re on base). In 2164 games he had 1995 RBIs, an average of 149 per 162 games. After all these years he’s still fifth ever and the man in fourth place (Barry Bonds) is only one ahead of him. Back a long time ago (May of 2010) I came up with something of a joke stat called RBI-NS (runs batted in–not self) which was simply RBI-HR. It was designed to see how many of a player’s RBIs were earned by plating himself with a home run rather than knocking in another player. I did all the players with 475 or more home runs (as of 2010) and found that Gehrig was second in the stat with 75% of his RBIs being another player (Stan Musial was first with 76%). That means to me that not only did Gehrig have a lot of opportunity to knock in runs, but that he managed to do so with great frequency. That’s a measure of how much he dominated in his era.
There has been for years some argument about the 1927 MVP race. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and Gehrig was chosen MVP. A couple of things ought to be pointed out. First, Ruth won an MVP earlier and for years there was an official rule that you couldn’t win two. By 1927 it was more or less tradition although the prohibition was gone. I’m sure that hurt Ruth some but if you look at the season it’s not like Gehrig was a slouch either. Gehrig led the team in hits, doubles, RBIs (of course he did), and average. Baseball Reference.com’s version of WAR even has him better than Ruth.
Gehrig also holds the AL record for RBIs in a single season with 185 in 1931. The only number higher is in the National League and comes in the juiced ball season of 1930. His triple crown season of 1934 provided his only batting title, but was his second (of three) home run title, and his fifth (and final) RBI title. He also led the league in hits once, in runs four times, and in triples once. The last of those stunned me when I noticed it. No one thinks of Gehrig as particularly fast, but he averaged 12 triples per 162 games. His one MVP award was in 1936, a decent year (and his last home run title) but certainly not his best.
Over the years Lou Gehrig the ballplayer has gotten lost behind Lou Gehrig the man. His disease, his class in handling it (especially on this the 75th anniversary of the most famous speech in baseball history), and his tragedy all have subsumed his playing career (not to mention the movie). This is a small attempt to remind you of just how good he was as a ballplayer. In 2000 SABR did a membership poll asking who was the greatest 20th Century baseball player. Unsurprisingly, Babe Ruth won. Second was Gehrig. They make a good case for it.