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Uncle Andy's Blog Archives for 2014-06

Legs and Lou


 

One of the best things about sports are the stories and, as time moves past us, sometimes the stories behind the stories get left out or pushed aside.  As a sport enthusiast who has written several books, aired on the radio for twenty years and interviewed many persons from the world of sports, I am amazed at how often we do not know the whole truth.   The history of this game is important to me.  During the summer of 2000, my radio partner, Dennis Quinn, and I interviewed a fellow who was working as an executive for the Texas Rangers.  At that time he had spent 61 years in professional baseball as a player, manager, and front office executive.  In that interview, he described to us a firsthand account of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech given on July 4, 1939.  You see, he was there as the lead-off hitter for the Washington Senators.  I’ve got to tell you, firsthand accounts of historic events give me “Goosebumps.” 

It was already a hot and muggy day when they opened the Yankee Stadium turnstiles at 10 a.m. that morning.  The New York Yankees were hosting the Washington Senators in a doubleheader on Independence Day.  A big crowd was expected as several busloads of fans from Manville, New Jersey, poured into their seats to see for the first time their hometown hero, a rookie centerfielder named Johnny “Legs” Welaj.  Legs had been born on May 27, 1914, in Moss Creek, Pennsylvania.  His family soon moved to Bound Brook, New Jersey, where he graduated high school in 1934, and began playing semi-pro baseball.  Johnny had starred in baseball, basketball and football, and become the inaugural member of his high school’s Alumni Hall of Fame.  He joined the Albany International League in 1936, and his contract was sold to the Washington Senators in 1937.   Welaj made his debut as a Washington Senator on May 2, 1939, and this was the first time his fans, friends, and family would see him play as a professional.   “We were told it was to be ‘Johnny Welaj Appreciation Day,’” said Legs.  Johnny’s contingent of fans gathered around home plate before Game One to celebrate.  It was not until then that Welaj was informed by the Yankee management that Lou Gehrig would give his retirement speech that same day. 

For the first time ever, he was afraid to be on a ball field.  During Game One, Lou told Joe McCarthy, “I’d give a month’s pay to get out of this.”  Joe did not respond.  The Yanks lost the first game, 3-2.  The Yankees lined up along the third-base line and the Senators down the first-base line.  A band marched onto the field.  Lou had lost weight, his uniform no longer fit as he shuffled toward home plate with his head down, arms hanging lifeless by his sides.  Ed Barrow walked beside Gehrig, edging him along.  It was July 4, 1939, before Game Two of the doubleheader.  “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” was about to begin, and 61,000 fans sat in silence at Yankee Stadium.  Now making his way from the dugout, he has been regarded as the greatest first baseman in the game.  Even though his body had been breaking down since the beginning of 1938, he never complained.  Lou Gehrig was the heart of the New York Yankees.  The Yankees hung the World Series buntings out around the stadium and invited the 1927 Yankees’ team to this event.  Special guests were introduced, including Babe Ruth and Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia.   Then Lou received the gifts, a fishing rod, silver plates, and a trophy.  Lou never said a word, as these gifts were handed to him.  The gifts piled up around his feet, as he was not strong enough to hold them.  Lou Gehrig also became the first Major League player to have his uniform number retired.  Gehrig would be the only Yankee to ever wear the #4.  The Yankee emcee, Sid Mercer, asked Lou if he had anything to say.  Gehrig, head still down, wiping away tears with a white handkerchief, shook his head “no.”  Then the fans begin to understand this was it, the last time they may see the “Iron Horse.”  They stood in unison and chanted, “We want Lou!  We want Lou!”  Gehrig stood still, afraid he might collapse if he moved too quickly.  Manager Joe McCarthy whispered in Lou’s ear.  Gehrig slowly stepped toward the microphone and the fans quieted down.  It was as silent as an empty classroom.  Gehrig ran his hand through his hair, then leaned forward and poured his heart out for everyone to hear.  Lou Gehrig would speak without notes, while ringing his blue cap between both his hands.  His words may have been the strongest message anyone had ever heard.  I’m convinced that most of you have only heard a portion of Gehrig’s farewell speech, perhaps the first two sentences and the last two.  Below are his words in their entirety. 

“For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break.  Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.  When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in the ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with such a grand little fellow as Miller Huggins?  To have spent the next nine years with that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Who wouldn’t feel honored to room with such a grand guy as Bill Dickey? When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift—that’s something.  When the groundskeepers and office staff and writers and old timers and players and concessionaires all remember you with trophies—that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law, who takes sides with you, in squabbles against her own daughter—that’s something.  When you have a father and mother who worked all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body—it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed—that’s the finest I know.  So I close in saying that I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.  Thank You.”

Henry Louis Gehrig grew up in New York City, the only survivor among four siblings.   Lou learned about the game of baseball by collecting baseball cards from his father’s Sweet Corporal cigarette packs.  A mama’s boy, he was considered shy and socially awkward, strong but clumsy, a misfit on a team of drinkers and hell raisers.  There is no doubt that Gehrig and Ruth formed the greatest slugging tandem in baseball history.   He married his sweetheart Eleanor.  He called her “Pal” and she called him “Luke.”  In January of 1938, Lou went to Hollywood to act as an extra on one of the most popular westerns at that time, Rawhide.  He was having trouble with his balance.  Bruises and blisters began to appear on his hands.  Still, Lou never missed a game that year.  Gehrig would be diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or what is now called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”   Doctor’s gave him hope, even wrote him letters of encouragement, all while telling his wife, Eleanor Gehrig, the terrible truth.  There was nothing they could do, Lou would not survive.  Lou Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.  He was 37 years old and, as expected, fought to live until the end.  Some say the Good Lord wept as the New York Yankees were rained out that day.

Our friend, Johnny Welaj, passed away on September 13, 2003.  He had been living at the “Autumn Leaves of Arlington” Assisted Living Center.  He was 89.  Interestingly, Johnny had a brother also named Lou, who played with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1942 to 1950.

The Yankees won Game two for Lou, 11-1.  How lucky I have been to see and experience the greatness of Lou Gehrig through the eyes of Johnny Welaj.   Happy Independence Day! 

 

 

Andy Purvis is a local author.  His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc.  They are also available in e-reader format.  Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or purvis.andy@mygrande.net.

 

The Starting Five


No, I’m not talking about the game of basketball, but rather the first five players inducted into the National Baseball Hall-of-Fame Museum located in Cooperstown, New York.   Contrary to popular belief, the first election of players into the Baseball Hall of Fame occurred in 1936, not 1939.  And yes, even though the famous picture of the inaugural class contains ten new members, there were only five original inductees.  Two-hundred and twenty six voting members made up the original Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).  This game called baseball had been played professionally since 1869.  So naturally a special Veterans Committee, made up of men who were more familiar with the players from the early years, was given the authority to also select new members.  The overall intent was to have fifteen honorees by July 12, 1939, the year the Hall of Fame would actually open its doors to the public.  These fifteen would be represented by ten players from the 20th century writers and five from the 19th century Veterans Committee.

Interestingly, players who had been thrown out of baseball like “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and Hal Chase were included on the original ballot, but few writers chose to vote for them.  Each of the voting writers was instructed to vote for ten players and 75% of the those votes or 170 votes were needed to be enshrined.  A total of 47 different players received votes on the very first ballot, but only five players received enough votes to reach the 75% mark.  They were as follows, in order:  Ty Cobb received 222 votes or 98.2% to lead all players; “Babe” Ruth and Honus Wagner were tied for second with 215 votes each or 95.1% of votes cast; the first pitcher, Christy Mathewson, collected 205 votes or 90.7%; and Walter Johnson was fifth with 189 votes or 87.6%.  That’s a heck of a starting five. 

The Veterans Committee was comprised of 78 voters, and 57 different players and managers received votes.  As with the writers, 75% of the votes cast or 59 votes were needed to be inducted, but none received the 75% required.

Eight new members were elected for the class of 1937, three players by the writers and five by the Veterans Committee. “Nap” Lajoie 83.6%, “Tris” Speaker 82.1%, and “Cy” Young 76.7%, received the votes needed for enshrinement by the writers. The Veterans Committee elected John McGraw, Connie Mack, George Wright, Byron Johnson and Morgan Bulkeley.

The 1938 class consisted of just three new members. Pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander received 80.9% of the writers’ votes, while the Veterans Committee selected Henry Chadwick and Alexander Cartwright.

The induction class of 1939 would include ten more new members, three selected by the writers, six from the Veterans Committee and one by special vote.  George Sisler led the way with 85.8%, followed by Eddie Collins with 77.7% and “Wee Willie” Keeler with 75.5%.  Lou Gehrig would get the nod through a special ballot while still alive, due to his terminal illness that forced him to retire early.  Lou Gehrig would die on June 2, 1941.  The six new members chosen by the Veterans Committee are as follows:  “Cap” Anson, “Buck” Ewing, “Candy” Cummings, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, Al Spalding and Charles Comisky.  All in all, thirteen 20th century players and thirteen 19th century selections (26 total) made up the inaugural class for the first public opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The first induction weekend festivities began on July 12, 1939.

I do think it’s interesting that Ty Cobb received more votes than Babe Ruth.  They competed against each other from 1914 to 1928, when Cobb retired.  Cobb, a demon on the base paths, went to the plate with a bat in his hand 11,434 times in his 23-year career.  He recorded 4,189 hits, far and away the most ever, until passed by Pete Rose.  Cobb batted .366, still tops in all of professional baseball, while recording 724 doubles, 295 triples and 117 home runs.  Ty had 897 career stolen bases, 54 of those coming at home plate, another record.  Cobb also scored 2,246 runs while batting in 1,938 runs.  In his day, the game was played base to base and home runs were frowned upon.  Cobb always said he could hit home runs if he wanted to; so on May 5, 1925, Cobb hit three home runs in one game against the St. Louis Browns.

Ruth went to bat 8,399 times, or 3,034 times less than Cobb during his 21 seasons.  “The Babe” recorded 2,873 hits while hitting at a .342 average.  Ruth collected 506 doubles, 136 triples, and slammed an unbelievable 714 home runs.  He also stole 123 bags, scored 2,174 runs, while driving in 2,214 RBI’s.  Ruth’s big body, big personality, and his big booming bat changed the perception of the game for the fans.  The long ball was invented.  Ruth was a seven-time World Series Champ, where Cobb’s Tigers played in three World Series but never won.  No matter how much better Cobb played than Ruth, the Babe always stole the spotlight in the eyes of the fans, but not the writers.

 

 

Andy Purvis is a local author.  His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc.  They are also available in e-reader format.  Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or purvis.andy@mygrande.net.

 

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