Long before Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” farewell speech, he played two games at Yale Field

New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig wipes away a tear while speaking during a sold-out tribute at Yankee Stadium July 4, 1939. Gehrig's record breaking career was cut short by ALS. (AP Photo/Murray Becker)

By: Joel Alderman

This Fourth of July not only marks the renewal of America’s most patriotic holiday, it is also the 75th anniversary of one of the most poignant moments in the history of baseball, Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech to the game.

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Ceremonies at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, preceded Gehrig’s death almost two years to the day. He had a rare and incurable disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, now commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Despite his illness, he spoke to the crowd while wiping away his tears and proclaimed from the field that he was the “luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Gehrig baseball Yale kid
When the Yankees played at Yale Field in 1933, Lou Gehrig signed a baseball for the batboy, Bob Wood, son of the Yale coach and former Red Sox pitching great, Smokey Joe Wood. (Photo courtesy of Yale Archives)

By using the word “luckiest,” he later explained, it was his way of showing appreciation for the fans and people around him during his baseball career, which had then come to a close.

This immortal speech can be heard and seen right here.

Despite the widespread accounts of his short but dramatic life, relatively few people know that he had come to West Haven for two games at Yale Field ten years apart. He also played in another park in West Haven, Donovan Field, in the Savin Rock amusement park.

His Yankees opposed a New Haven semi-pro outfit, Albie Booth’s Chevies. That was a story in itself, which we will save for another day.

The national media is expressing extensive remembrances this summer of the career and tragic farewell speech of the gallant Gehrig. However, those two games at Yale Field will no doubt continue to be ignored, either through unawareness or because they are considered relatively unimportant to the overall story of Lou Gehrig.

Here at SportzEdge, we are devoted to covering events and facts focusing on the state of Connecticut. Therefore we will devote this column to those virtually unknown or forgotten games against Yale, and perhaps help make the biographical material of this immortal New York Yankee more complete.

Gehrig  first came to Yale Field as Columbia Lou

Although he was popularly known as the Iron Horse, he had another nickname, Columbia Lou.

Gehrig attended Columbia, which was near his home in New York City, during a time when Ivy League schools granted athletic scholarships. To the surprise of most of us today his athletic scholarship to Columbia was granted not for his baseball talent, but for football, a sport in which he also excelled.

In the fall of 1922 he was a halfback and tackle on the Columbia football team, and the following spring he was both a pitcher and first baseman in baseball.

Columbia lost to Yale, 4-3, despite Gehrig’s two hits

gehrig columbia
Gehrig played for Columbia in 1923. (Photo: Columbia University)

April 11, 1923, was a breezy, near freezing day. Yale prohibited its mid-week games from starting before 4:15. Daylight Savings Time had not yet gone into effect. Yet Yale and Columbia still managed to beat the darkness and play a full game in 2 hours and 10 minutes, with Yale winning, 4-3.

Columbia took a 3-0 lead without a hit, in the fourth inning. After the leadoff batter walked, Gehrig bunted in an apparent attempt to sacrifice. He reached on a fielder’s choice when the Bulldogs’ first baseman threw too late to the shortstop covering second. The runners both advanced on a sacrifice and they scored on a passed ball. The third run was the result of a pair of infield errors.

Yale’s pitcher that day was its famous football player and later coach, Raymond (Ducky) Pond. He went the first seven innings and limited Columbia to just three hits, including the two by Gehrig. Another renowned Bulldog football star, Widdy Neale, played right field.

Yale won the game with two runs in each of the fifth and sixth innings. Columbia Lou batted third, played first base, and made 12 putouts. He also figured in a double play.

Later that season, in one of the Columbia games he pitched, Gehrig struck out 17 batters against Williams College, but his team still lost. However, his forte was hitting. In 19 games for the Lions he had a batting average of .444, including seven home runs.

Less than two months after his sophomore year, Gehrig left college to sign with the Yankees. He explained to the New York Times that “a fellow has to eat.” His father was ill and “when there was no money coming in there was nothing for me to do but sign up.”

Under today’s rules, Gehrig would have been ineligible to play in college

His participation in the game at Yale almost never happened. After he graduated from Commerce High School in New York, and before he entered Columbia, he played a few pro games for the Hartford Senators in the Eastern League under the assumed name of Lou Lewis. After two weeks, during which he had a .261 batting average, his true identity was revealed by the Hartford Times. Columbia’s coach, Andy Coakley, went to Hartford and brought him back to New York. He was just 17 years old at the time.

Columbia suspended him from the baseball team in 1922, while Coach Coakley wrote to the other schools and asked for their permission to let him play after the year’s suspension. They all agreed. There was no NCAA to declare him ineligible for turning pro, and Gehrig was able to play at Yale Field in 1923.

He returned to the Eastern League after college. He again played for Hartford and came to Hamden’s Weiss Park several times in 1923 and 1924 for games against George Weiss’ New Haven Colonials. Then it was time for the Yankees.

The New York Yankees brought Gehrig back to Yale Field ten years later

Lou Gehrig baseball
The Wall of Fame at Yale Field honors Lou Gehrig and other famous players who have appeared there.

Fast forward exactly ten years to the day he played for Columbia against Yale. By April 11, 1933, Gehrig was an established star with the Yankees. He was in the midst of a consecutive game playing streak which, along with his strength and power, would earn him the Iron Horse nickname.

One day before the American League season was to begin, the Yankees came to West Haven for an exhibition against Yale. The previous year they had won the World Series in four straight against the Chicago Cubs.

Like the Columbia-Yale game in 1923, this one was played in anything but baseball weather. It was “bitter cold, with a stiff wind . . . a day better suited for mid-winter athletic endeavor” according to Dan Mulvey, the New Haven Register sports editor. Perhaps because of the cold, the contest, which one report said drew about 5,000 spectators, moved along in 1 hour and 45 minutes.

There is a myth that Babe Ruth hit a home run over the high center field scoreboard that day, but it was just that, a myth. The Bambino did not even make the trip, remaining in New York with a bad sore throat. Famed manager Joe McCarthy also stayed home, leaving Art Fletcher in charge of the team.

The Yankees had four future Hall of Famers in their lineup, Gehrig, Earle Combs, Tony Lazzeri, and Joe Sewell. Gehrig, Combs and Lazzeri were all part of the famed “Murderers Row.” Another Yankee immortal facing Yale that day was shortstop Frankie Crosetti, who spent his entire career with the Bombers.

Two of New York’s players, Dixie Walker and Ben Chapman, are portrayed as racists in the Jackie Robinson movie, 42, especially Chapman. After starting the Yale game as the left fielder, he is the one who took Gehrig’s first base position, when Lou was taken out because he was struck by a pitch.

The Yankees defeated Yale behind a pitcher from Harvard

Yale Field Gehrig
Lou Gehrig played at Yale Field while at Columbia and later as a Yankee.

The Yankees sent a rookie to the mound, Charlie Devens, who was familiar to most of the Yale players because he had played football and baseball at Harvard. He was the pitcher the year before in the Harvard-Yale playoff game when Harvard beat Yale and its own future Yankee hurler, Johnny Broaca.

Devens beat Yale again, pitching a no-hitter as the Yankees won, 6-0, after Yale played them scoreless for three innings.

Gehrig was the first batter in the fourth and was hit on the ankle by a pitch from George Parker. He took first base and advanced to third on two infield hits. He then scored ahead of the two other base runners on a double by Art Jorgens, the backup catcher to Bill Dickey, who was not there that day.

Gehrig’s record might never have existed because of the Yankees’ game at Yale Field

It is a little known fact that when Columbia Lou (as he was still called) was hit on the ankle by a pitch, he was taken out of the game between innings as a precaution. Up to hat point he had played in 1,197 consecutive regular season games and was shooting for what then was the record of 1,307.

The season opener was to be the next day and The New York Times wrote that after he was hit on the ankle and scored a run, “he limped from the field.”

In the next sentence the Times assured its readers “He is expected to be in the Yankee lineup tomorrow.”

We will never know, however, if Gehrig would actually been able to play the next day,and keep the streak alive.

For opening day in New York was rained out.

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