75 years later, Babe Ruth's hug means almost as much as Lou Gehrig's speech

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in 1930, before the fall. - Getty Images

At the time, a hug between two greats of the game loomed almost as large as Gehrig's words -- and maybe it still should.

Lou Gehrig's words, his grace in the face of invalidism or death, had resonated for exactly 75 years on July 4, but the moment that came before the last line, "I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you," had echoed over the public address system and faded had great power as well. Looking back at the original coverage, it seems apparent that the writers in attendance thought Gehrig's words would not have much importance or meaning. No two of them wrote them down in the same way, as if it was only after they had realized the resonance of what they had heard and were left scrambling to recall it correctly. However, they all made a point of getting one thing right, a moment of reconciliation and forgiveness between two old friends that could only have happened that day, for that reason.

When the anniversary of 1939's "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day" was observed by Major League Baseball as well as numerous commentators, the emphasis was, as it should have been, primarily on what Gehrig said -- even if, due to the writers' lack of fidelity, exactly what he said has been lost to time but for some fragmentary newsreels. Maybe what occurred between Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on that day has become just a detail instead of the focal point of the story because there's nothing you can read, no recording you can hear, just a picture you can look at, and in this case the picture doesn't tell the whole story. Yet, there are times when a simple embrace can be more eloquent than any arrangement of words.

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That hug ended five years of estrangement, and yet there is also a great deal of ambiguity to it. Human relationships, even the really close, ideal-marriage ones, have grey areas. If you have ever wished that an angry utterance could be recalled so that a broken relationship could be mended, or that there would be some impossible moment of forgiveness and reconciliation that would revive a love that died, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day had that. Maybe that's not important to you; you can't empathize. If you don't have regrets about an unfixable relationship somewhere in your psyche it is asserted here that you are superhuman in your powers of acceptance. Think of the version of Reinhold Niebuhr's ubiquitous serenity prayer, which now adorns dangling kitten posters worldwide:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can change,
And wisdom to know the difference."

The reason such an incantation is even necessary is that what many of us are really thinking is,

"God grant me the strength to change the things I cannot change
(Or just go ahead and change them, okay?),
Courage to continue to want to change them even though I know they aren't going to change,
And the Capacity for Self-delusion not to recognize the futility of it all."

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Lou Gehrig didn't have a great deal of luck in the end, but his illness did allow him that one final turn at-bat with an old friend. He didn't get to change the things he could not change, his illness, but the breach with Ruth was mended. Maybe in the end that means more to some of us than it did to him. We want the people we like to like each other. We want the people we like to like us.

Here's Rud Rennie describing the key moment directly after Gehrig's speech on July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium in the old New York Herald-Tribune:

"Gehrig evoked tears and laughter with words which made the previous speeches sound rather hollow. He was wonderful. Somehow he managed to control his voice. And when he was through, [Babe] Ruth put his arm around him... People were crying in the stands when Gehrig finished. And they were ready to laugh again when Ruth put his arms around Gehrig and advised him to try out the fishing rod that had been given him and catch all the fish in the sea."

"Ruth put his arm around him." That was the grace note within the grace note.

Before we continue, it's important to point out that baseball history has traditionally not been treated like "real" history, with sources and footnotes and such. Back in Gehrig's time, sports journalism wasn't much better. Everyone agreed, as John Drebinger put it in the New York Times the next day that, "In conclusion, the vast gathering, sitting in absolute silence for a longer period than perhaps any baseball crowd in history, heard Gehrig himself deliver as amazing a valedictory as ever came from a ballplayer," but not only Gehrig's words but the order of events was confused from paper to paper.

The timing matters, because the interaction with Ruth was either a throwaway interstitial moment with an ill-timed gag about a fishing pole or the exclamation point on Gehrig's life as a New York Yankee. When Gehrig established himself as a Yankees regular in 1925, the 22-year-old had long been a Ruth fan. The two bonded easily, with Gehrig assuming a subservient, little brother role at first. The two barnstormed together in the offseasons once Gehrig became a star (a very lucrative venture for both), and traveled to spring training together. Ruth, who had been virtually abandoned by his family as a child, became a welcome presence at the house where Gehrig still lived with his German-immigrant parents. Ruth, also of German heritage, would sprechen sie Deutsch with Gehrig's mother, Christina, and she would feed him her German-ethnic cooking. "It was one of the rare tastes of home life I ever had," Ruth said.

Christina called Ruth "Judge," a corruption of "Jidge" (itself a version of "George," Ruth's real name, which is how his teammates often referred to him). Ruth gave Christina a dog. She called it Judge, too.

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Eleanor Gehrig (center) with Christina and Heinrich Gehrig.

The Ruth-Gehrig relationship fell apart around 1932 or 1933. When Ruth remarried in 1929, his wife Claire brought her biological daughter Julia to the relationship. Ruth contributed Dorothy, the adopted daughter of his first marriage (who was probably his biological child, though not by his first wife). Julia was the older of the two, verging on adulthood, whereas in 1932 Dorothy was 11. Around this time, Dorothy visited the Gehrig household and Christina Gehrig wondered aloud why Claire didn't dress Dorothy as well as she dressed Julia. The comment perhaps made Dorothy sound a bit like Cinderella. It got back to Claire, who communicated her displeasure to the Babe.

Depending on who you read next, Ruth either sent an intermediary (Sammy Byrd, acting as "Babe Ruth's Mouth" instead of "Babe Ruth's Legs?" Always-hostile future Jackie Robinson antagonist Ben Chapman?) to deliver a message to Lou: "Never speak to me again off the field." In other accountings, Ruth himself went to Gehrig and said, "Your mother should mind her own goddamned business."

Every boy loves his mother. Well, every boy whose mother didn't say things like, "I'll pick you up after school" and then never arrived because she was on a vodka bender, but most boys. Gehrig had a weak father; his mother was the rock of his life. When he married Eleanor Twitchell in September, 1933 (the Ruths were not invited to the reception), she had to pry him out of his boyhood home with a lever, and she never was able to get on with her mother-in-law, before or after Gehrig's passing. Prior to Eleanor came on the scene, Christina went to every Yankees home game and often followed Lou on the road as well. She had deflected some of Lou's romantic interests over the years, had provoked a last-minute quarrel with Eleanor that nearly derailed the wedding, and refused to go to the ceremony until the last moment. "There was a mother-son complex there," said sportswriter Fred Lieb, a good friend of Lou's, "that was as bad one way as the other."

Given that, there was no attack on Gehrig that Ruth could have made that would have been worse than one on his mother. Not that he didn't try. In 1937, two years after his retirement, Ruth went after Gehrig's consecutive games streak in the New York Times (annoying ellipses in the original):

"I think Lou's making one of the worst mistakes a ballplayer can make by trying to keep up that ‘iron man' stuff... He's already cut three years off his baseball life with it... He oughta learn to sit on the bench and rest... They're not going to pay off on how many games he's played in a row... The next two years will tell Gehrig's fate. When his legs go, they'll go in a hurry. The average ball fan doesn't realize the effect a single charley horse can have on your legs. If Lou stays out here every day and never rests his legs, one bad charley horse may start him downhill."

Here's another thing sportswriters felt free to do in the old days, paraphrase. Babe Ruth didn't really pull on his sorcerer's robe and go all oracular, saying, "The next two years will tell Gehrig's fate." He just didn't. This was the Bambino, not one of the Norns, and yet suddenly (forgive the mixed metaphor) he's all Delphic and we're in a Sophocles play.

Gehrig replied with obvious frustration, though he didn't call out Ruth by name: "I don't see why anyone should belittle my record or attack it," he said. "I never belittled anyone else's. I'm not stupid enough to play if my value to the club is endangered. I honestly have to say I've never been tired on the field. If it develops that I am hurting the team by trying to stay in, why, I'll get out and the record will end right there." Which is exactly what happened -- although not enough was understood about Gehrig's diagnosis in 1939 for reporters not to screw that up, too, even with the words right in front of them. Here's Dan Daniel in the Sporting News:

The event was a reconciliation between Ruth and Gehrig, who had not spoken to each other in some time. They had tiffed over some silly thing, and Lou had resented Babe's interview in which he said Gehrig was making a serious mistake playing every day. Ruth was correct, only Gehrig did not know it. Nor did any of us.

No, Ruth was not correct, and Daniel should have known that. The Mayo Clinic's press release on Gehrig, had been issued in late June:

...It was found that he is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This type of illness involves the motor pathways and cells of the center nervous system and in lay terms is known as a form of chronic poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis). The nature of this trouble makes it such that Mr. Gehrig will be unable to continue his active participation as a baseball player...

This was the "awful bad break" that Gehrig said "you have been reading about" when he began his speech. The errant reference to polio initially misled the public into thinking Gehrig's affliction was one he might be able to live with, but anyone who did further research (a group which included Eleanor but probably not Babe Ruth) were quickly disabused of this notion. Either way, Daniel knew at the time of his writing that Gehrig's retirement had not a damned thing to do with playing too much.

Regardless, there were other reasons for Ruth and Gehrig falling out. They weren't well-matched personalities in any sense except being great athletes. Ruth was outgoing and uncensored, Gehrig reticent and retiring. "The big guy has a big, loose mouth," he once said of Ruth. "He pops off too damn much about a lot of things." Ruth spent lavishly and Gehrig was notoriously tight with a buck. Yankees politics also got between them -- Ruth thought manager Joe McCarthy was getting in the way of his own managerial bid and actively disliked him, while Gehrig was an avid supporter -- he had inscribed a picture to McCarthy, "May I always deserve your friendship."

There was also an odd incident with Gehrig's wife during a trip to Japan conducted by Connie Mack for a series of exhibition games. Though even 18-year-old Julia Ruth, also on the trip,  made a point of showing up Eleanor ("Don't stop," she said to a companion when she saw Mrs. Gehrig on deck, "The Ruths don't speak to the Gehrigs"), Claire invited her counterpart to the Ruths' cabin. Eleanor wrote in 1976:

"I stepped into their little world: the resplendent Babe, sitting like a Buddha figure, crosslegged and surrounded by an empire of caviar and champagne. It was an extravagant picnic, especially since I'd never been able to get my fill of caviar, and suddenly I was looking up at mounds of it. So I was ‘missing' for two hours... The one place that Lou had never thought to check out was Babe Ruth's cabin."

The result, said Eleanor, "was a long siege of no-speaking" between husband and wife. The Babe, perhaps feeling responsible for causing a rift between the lovers, came to make peace: "Ruth burst in -- jovial, arms both stretched out in a let's-be-pals gesture," Eleanor wrote. "But my unforgiving man turned his back, extending the silent treatment to the party of the second part, and the Babe retreated. They never did become reconciled, and I just dropped the subject forever." During Eleanor's lifetime, this story was embellished to suggest that Ruth had seduced her that day, a claim that seems outlandish even for the enthusiastically priapic Babe.

Eleanor did add to the friction between Ruth and Gehrig on her own account; she pushed Lou to think of himself as the star that he was, rather than second-banana to the fading Babe. That's not to say she was incorrect, but there was a longtime pecking order in which she was interfering. Once asked if he minded standing in Ruth's shadow, Gehrig had replied that it was a big shadow and there was plenty of room for him to spread out beneath it. Eleanor encouraged him to think more like the star he was. "I've got to start a campaign on this Dutchman," Eleanor told Gehrig's friend Fred Lieb. "I'm trying to build him up to the point where he knows he's good." As Ruth declined, that change had to cause resentment on the part of the older man.

The shipboard argument was pretty much it for Ruth and Gehrig until July 4, 1939. Rennie, above, had the order of events wrong. Ruth showed up for that day's reunion of the 1927 Yankees late, as he always was late for everything, but still had a chance to make a few remarks at the microphone on the subject of trying out fishing rods before Gehrig made his famous remarks. One early book has the embrace taking place right there. "And as the Babe came striding to the plate, he threw his arms around Lou and hugged him tight, and Lou was so happy he didn't know whether to laugh or cry."

Conversely, Jonathan Eig's more recent telling has it taking place after the speech, but puts an ambiguous spin on Gehrig's feelings: "Babe Ruth moved in, reached for a handshake, and then grabbed Gehrig in a hug. The photographers went crazy. Gehrig managed a small, crooked smile." "Managed" because of the incredibly difficult emotional speech he had just gone through, or because he still wasn't all that keen on Ruth? We'll never know.

Eleanor's version was more succinct and forgiving: "Babe Ruth, big and bear-like hugging away the feuds of the past summers." There may have been a little more, though. An un-bylined article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from July 5 adds a detail that conflicts in a meaningful way with the version told in Leigh Montville's recent biography of Ruth, The Big Bam:

Would he show? When he finally appeared, he was almost as majestic as he had ever been...  [Gehrig spoke.] At the end, he began to cry. Ruth was nudged to the microphone. He walked to his longtime associate, if not friend, his brother in long-ball history, grabbed him around the neck, and broke their five years of silence with a whispered joke that made them both smile.

But according to the Eagle, Ruth didn't make a joke. For once in his life, he said the right thing. Under the heading "RUTH IN TEARS," the Eagle reported

He had gone over, put one of those big arms around Gehrig's shoulders and patted Lou once or twice, trying to get him to stifle the emotion which had broken him up right out there on the ball field. "C'mon, kid," the Babe whispered through his tears. "C'mon, kid, buck up now. We're all with you."

That was what everyone had been trying to say to Gehrig for an hour during all that ceremony... The fans had been trying to; so had his teammates -- those of the current Yanks and those of the '27 world champions -- and so had the baseball writers. But there was no one could -- or should -- have said it like the Bam.

One last account, this one possibly in Babe Ruth's own words. From The Babe Ruth Story, his as-told-to with Bob Considine. The book came out in 1948, as the Babe was dying, and Considine wasn't above working independently. He has Gehrig speaking last:

Lou spoke as I never thought I'd hear a man speak in a ball park... When he said, "I consider myself the luckiest man in the world" [sic], I couldn't stand it any longer. I went over to him and put my arm around him, and though I tried to smile and cheer him up, I could not keep from crying.

Something like this could never happen again, I told myself. And yet I was destined to stand at the same home plate -- only seven years later -- in much the same condition and under much the same circumstances.

It may seem odd to go to so much trouble over the sequence of events, as if the Ruth-Gehrig reunion needed its own version of the Warren Report, but the order seems important. An impulsive gesture from Ruth in the midst of a hastily-improvised speech somehow seems lesser than a calculated gesture of closure at the end. Dan M. Daniel, writing this time in the New York Telegram, put it as if the latter were the case:

It was left for the greatest showman of baseball history, Babe Ruth, to come forward with a must-needed tension-breaker. Before the biggest crowd of the baseball year, Ruth and Gehrig, who had quarreled before the Bambino left the Yankees, became reconciled. With his face wreathed in the old Ruthian smile, the Babe posted with his right arm around Lou's neck. The old king and the crown prince had become reconciled at last.

Can a reconciliation after a deep break really happen with just a handshake, a hug, or a kiss?  Ruth and Gehrig weren't pals after that. It doesn't seem like they saw each other much during the 23 months that Gehrig had left to live, or if they did, the visits were neither publicized nor mentioned in any of the standard works on Gehrig, including Eleanor's book. When Ruth named his all-time all-star team nine years later, he listed Hal Chase at first base. For so many of us our tenderest feelings fade rapidly, while bitterness not only calcifies, but becomes stronger with the passing of the years.

Still, maybe that's enough of a reconciliation in the end. Lou was beyond help, but there were still those left behind, those who loved him, who needed comforting. The Ruths were second, after Yankees president Ed Barrow (who undoubtedly heard first), to arrive at the Gehrigs' house after Lou passed away, offering support to Eleanor, and that may indicate the state of the relationship at the time.

Eleanor Gehrig never remarried. After the Babe died in 1948, she and Claire Ruth spent the next 28 years, until Claire's own passing. appearing at Yankee Stadium as stand-ins for their husbands. It's not clear if  they ever became friends. Eleanor died in 1984, at the age of 79. Then all was even and would remain that way forevermore. All now is reconciled, or perhaps more accurately, inert. The Babe's own parting from this world is remembered with the same pain and awe as Gehrig's, his not because of what he said, but because of a picture that did tell the whole story.

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Babe Ruth's final farewell to Yankee Stadium, June 13, 1948.

The words will endure as long as there is baseball, if not beyond. They are so big as to have have crowded out the embrace and made the latter a mere detail in both their lives. Yet, the feud and its resolution 75 years ago in its own way looms just as  large. It belongs not just to them but to that small group of us who are moved not just because one man looked at his own mortality and said he was the luckiest man on the face of the Earth, but by loving kindness, generosity, and the possibility that if those two giants could embrace each other in the end then we too might be forgiven by those we have wronged, and that we might have the wisdom to grant that same forgiveness to those who have wronged us if it is asked for.

Those are the things we can change, if only we have the wisdom. Babe Ruth had it, at least that once.

Ruth_at_casket_medium

★★★

Sources: In addition to the newspapers mentioned above, books consulted included:

Bob Broeg, Superstars of Baseball; Bob Cooke, ed. Wake Up the Echoes; Robert Creamer, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life; Eleanor Gehrig and Joseph Durso, My Luke and I; Frank Graham, Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero; Jerome Holtzman, No Cheering in the Press Box; Alan H. Levy, Joe McCarthy: Architect of the Yankees Dynasty; Leigh Montville, The Big Bam; John Mosedale, The Greatest of All; Shirley Povich, All Those Mornings... At the Post; Ray Robinson, The Iron Horse; Babe Ruth with Bob Considine, The Babe Ruth Story; Marshall Smelser, The Life That Ruth Built; Fay Vincent, The Only Game in Town. All photos via Getty Images.

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