On June 19, 1903 Lou Gehrig was born. He would die of the disease that now bears his name in 1941. In between, virtually all of the major events of Gehrig’s life took place within the confines of New York. Richard takes a walking tour around the city to look back at Lou Gehrig’s New York.
For better or worse, I am a New Yorker through-and-through. No matter where I am, I refer to New York as “the city” and just assume everyone will know what I mean.
Although Washington DC, where I attended college, is a perfectly nice place, I found it painfully inadequate. Best as I could tell, the Metro stopped running at 6:30 pm, last call was at 8 pm. Worst of all, it took them until the spring of my junior year to get a baseball team. As I said, painfully inadequate.
But as much as New York runs through my veins, I can’t claim the connection to the city that Lou Gehrig had. He was born in New York, educated here from kindergarten through college, played for the city’s baseball team, worked for the city government and ultimately died here.
In Gehrig’s honor I took myself around this past Sunday on the “Lou Gehrig’s New York” walking tour, visiting some of the relevant location in the life of the Iron Horse.
As with the biography of anyone, Gehrig’s story begins with his birth. Gehrig was born to a pair of German immigrants in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. At the time Yorkville—where I grew up, incidentally—was a largely German neighborhood, a character that has since been lost.
Also lost is the building where Gehrig was born. Today, the space is occupied by an office building (seen below) associated with Mount Sinai Hospital.
After my past griping about how poor a job the city of Chicago did marketing its baseball past, I was pleased to see that there was a plaque (pictured below) noting the site’s historical legacy.
Of course, no one is putting up any plaques for where I was born (at least not yet) so one must trace Gehrig’s whole life which runs all around the city of New York. Gehrig was educated at PS 132 in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
For lack of a better term, Gehrig’s school looks very school-like: red brick, big doors, flagpole. Although the writing is partially obscured, the school is named for Juan Pablo Duarte. Duarte is the founder of the Dominican Republic, an appropriate figure for the neighborhood which is now largely Dominican.
I walked around the school—it takes up much of an entire city block—but it doesn’t seem to have much in the way of open space. As the picture below indicates, PS 132 does the best they can. Despite this, as I walked around I saw two kids playing catch. Perhaps one (or both) is destined to become the next Manny Ramirez, the best of recent players to emerge from Washington Heights.
After his time at PS 132, Gehrig had to move on to bigger and better things. For Lou, that meant high school. Gehrig attended Manhattan’s High School of Commerce. Like his birthplace, the High School of Commerce is no longer standing, replaced by another institution of learning, in this case Julliard.
His high school career would take Gehrig as far as Chicago’s Wrigley Field to play—supposedly after meeting President Taft. But for college, Gehrig decided to stay close to home attending New York City’s Ivy League institution, Columbia University.
While at Columbia, Gehrig initially did not play on the school’s baseball team, having lost his eligibility playing professionally the summer before. Gehrig was allowed to play on the school’s football team. In time Gehrig would also be allowed to join the baseball team.
For both baseball and football, Gehrig played his game at what is now the south lawn in front of the school’s Butler Library. In the picture below, the library is the large building with the columns, and the former site of the athletic field is the pair of lawns directly in front of it. (For an idea of what the space looked like while still a field, see the photo here.)
For a sense of perspective, the second photo is taken from as close as I could get to the space where Gehrig would have stood while at the plate for the Lions.
Gehrig would leave Columbia before earning a diploma, and have a Hall of Fame career with the Yankees. That being said, I’m sure you’re all aware of what Yankee Stadium looks like, but if you aren’t, Google can answer the question.
We will move on, to the post-playing portion of Gehrig’s career. After ALS forced him from the game, Gehrig moved on to a career in city government. Gehrig’s new job was as parole commissioner for New York City. The job lacked the glory of Gehrig’s former profession, perhaps to his delight. On his letterhead, he was listed as Henry L. Gehrig.
While working for parole, Gehrig worked out of 130 Centre Street, which is pictured below. The large banner, unreadable in that photo, notes that the building has been converted into what is somewhat mysteriously dubbed “Office Condominiums.”
Gehrig’s disease sadly gave him no chance at serving the 10-year term called for with his parole appointment. In 1941, Gehrig died in the Bronx, in a house I considered visiting but ruled out on the grounds that it was more than a little macabre. That’s also why I choose not to photograph Gehrig’s grave, which is a little under 20 miles as the crow flies north of Yankee Stadium.
It is rare to live one’s whole life in one city, and even rarer to make the mark on a city that Gehrig did. That he managed to make his mark in the city of his birth, education and death is yet another triumph to the amazing accomplishments of the Iron Horse.