The Nickname Game: Lou Gehrigby Bruce Markusen
September 18, 2009
As someone who loves the way Derek Jeter plays the game, I found myself torn during his recent pursuit and eventual takeover of Lou Gehrig’s Yankees record for most hits. On the one hand, I enjoyed seeing Jeter receive accolades for surpassing a record that embodies longevity and consistency. On the other, the Yankees (and the media) overplayed the moment, drowning it in sentimentality and hype, practically to the point of saturation.
Nonetheless, something undeniably good has come out of Jeter’s successful pursuit of history. Anything that makes Lou Gehrig fashionable and topical once again is a good thing. Along with the likes of Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson, Christy Mathewson, Dale Murphy and several other notable stars of the last 110 years, Gehrig is one of the game’s legitimate and full-fledged heroes. By reintroducing Gehrig to our consciousness (however unintentionally), Jeter has reminded older fans of the man’s greatness while introducing younger fans to a legacy of leadership and character.
First off, let’s reiterate Gehrig’s standing as the greatest first baseman in history. No player at his position has ever combined such raw power, general hitting skill, high-caliber defensive play and deceptive footspeed in one package. Perhaps Albert Pujols will one day exceed Gehrig, maybe in the next six or seven seasons, but for now, Lou’s place on the all-time all-star team should remain intact.
Then there is the issue of Gehrig’s character, which goes beyond the grace he displayed as his body deteriorated in front of him, dismantled by the effects of a disease that would later bear his name. Long before Gehrig’s chilling diagnosis and his public grapple with death, he had served as an example of a model teammate and professional athlete. Humble to the extreme, he rarely took credit, preferring to deflect praise in the direction of his beloved manager (Joe McCarthy) and any one of a number of teammates.
Even when success came his way, Gehrig remained a grounded family man; after receiving his first Yankees bonus, he spent most of the money on an operation required by his ailing mother. And then there’s that unprecedented level of toughness. In spite of a terrifying beanball incident, in spite of broken bones suffered in most of the fingers of both his hands, Gehrig worked his way into the lineup 2,130 consecutive times before finally pulling himself—ultimately for the good of the team.
Putting aside his accomplishments and integrity, Gehrig provides us with interesting subject matter for more trivial and light-hearted reasons. The man had nicknames. In fact, Gehrig must have set a record with the sheer number of monikers he acquired during his career. The nicknames never came from himself (he was no Deion Sanders) but always from others—from teammates and the media. Maybe they felt a need to bestow nicknames on him because of Lou’s general separation from controversy. Outside of his long feud with Babe Ruth, I can’t think of any tabloid episodes in his career. Too good to be true, Gehrig gave writers and fellow players little in the way of real verbal ammunition.
In a sense, the nicknames gave them a way to add some color to Gehrig’s inoffensive persona. Let’s begin with an early nickname, one that came shortly after he joined the Yankees. He became “Columbia Lou,” a reference to his matriculation at Columbia University, which he attended on a football scholarship. Then came one of my favorite nicknames, which also became a favorite among his teammates. They called Gehrig “Biscuit Paints” because of his unusually thick legs and low-to-the-ground running style, which may have been a remnant of his days as a running back in college. Gehrig churned those thick legs into a few extra bases; a surprisingly fast runner, Lou still holds the Yankee record for most career triples.
Perhaps the oddest nickname for Gehrig was used exclusively by the media in the '20s and '30s. Writers often called him “Larrupin’ Lou,” a label that sometimes made its way into newspaper and periodical headlines. And what in the world, you might ask, does “larrupin’” mean? Well, it’s a shortening of the word “larruping,” an adjective used in describing the delivery of a blow, especially one executed with great force. Though hardly a common word in the lexicon, it certainly fit Gehrig’s hitting style. He apparently liked the nickname enough to apply it to his own barnstorming team, which he called the “Larrupin’ Lous.”
Even so, there were other nicknames. Gehrig’s beloved wife, Eleanor, called him “Luke.” Others referred to him as “Buster.” A few people even called him “Little Joe,” a rather obscure reference to his uniform number 4 and the old parlor game of Parcheesi. (If you rolled a "4" in Parcheesi, it was called a Little Joe. And I can’t believe I’ve worked Parcheesi into an article on baseball.)
As amusing as many of these nicknames were, none provided as much insight into Gehrig’s character as his most famous nickname. As Gehrig played day after day at first base, on his way to setting an imposing record for longevity, he became known to media members and fans as the “Iron Horse.” The phrase was originally the nickname that Native Americans gave to the steam locomotives of the 1880s. The power and durability of the locomotive trains greatly impressed Native Americans; the media transferred the same nickname to Gehrig, whose own levels of strength and endurance made him among the game’s elite.
More than all the other nicknames, the Iron Horse has become the lasting symbol of an iconic ballplayer. A full 70 years after Gehrig made his famed speech at Yankee Stadium, the nickname still fits Lou perfectly. Perhaps that’s why it has been bestowed on no one else since, not even the great Cal Ripken Jr. To be sure, it’s not at all tiresome to be reminded about the one and only Iron Horse.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.