Eleanor Gehrig, the wife and widow of the Iron Horse
Eleanor was a wild child from Chicago while Lou was the personification of hard-work. As a couple they were a team; after his death, she remained his widow six times longer than she was his wife. Called by some the “First Lady of the Yankees” after being at Old-Timers games for four decades, Lou Gehrig’s wife Eleanor became a professional widow to the only man she ever loved.
Eleanor Grace Twitchell was born on March 6, 1904 in Chicago, Illinois to Nellie, a teenage bride of Canadian and Irish decent and father Frank, self-made man who would set the betting odds for horse races. The family moved a lot because of Frank’s job; however, when Eleanor’s brother Frank, Jr. was born in 1910, they settled in Chicago permanently.
The family would move up the social ladder of Chicago with each new job Frank obtained. First, when he was the manager of the well-known Heidelberg Café, the second rung up was when he became appointed the official concessionaire of all the Chicago parks. The second job allowed them to move to the Windy City’s affluent South Shore.
Growing difficulties at home did not make her Eleanor’s life at home pleasant. A public affair the tabloids caught her father in with an assistant from work is what did the trick. Their daughter had the same live for the moment approach to life her father. Eleanor rode horses, played golf and attended vaudeville shows while never making school a top priority, missing weeks of classes at times.
Her two closes friends were sisters, Mary and Dorothy who had married brothers. Mary’s husband was Joe Grabiner, a prolific professional gambler; Dorothy’s husband Harry was secretary and vice president of the Chicago White Sox. The lifestyle of being at the ballpark appealed to Eleanor has she would recall about her teen years, “I suppose, in the 1920s, you could say I fiddled while Chicago burned. I was young and rather innocent, but I smoked, played poker, drank bathtub gin along with everybody else, collected $5 a week in allowance from my father, spent $100 a week, made up the difference from winter-book jackpots at the racetrack that filled a dresser drawer with close to $10,000 at one point, and learned to become a big tipper.”
Frank Twitchell took to drinking excessive amount of Scotch after some poor investments and mistresses wiped him out. He later lost the contract to the Chicago parks concessions. “The Twitchells were ahead of the times,” Eleanor observed sardonically. “We were going broke before the Depression.” Frank Twitchell left Chicago for New Orleans, became somewhat estranged from his family and died from a stroke in 1934.
Eleanor was diagnosis with a heart condition and the fast life needed to slow down, the textbooks of Gregg Business School replaced the race books of the track. She landed a job in March 1929 working as the secretary to the general manager at Chicago’s branch of Saks Fifth Avenue. That fall the stock market crashed, but Eleanor was lucky, keeping a job as the “director of personnel,” firing employees the store could no longer afford to keep and making $30 a week. By 1931 she too was let go by Saks; however, she quickly found work with the Century of Progress, the planning committee that was working on the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair, at a 50% increase in salary.
During her time hanging out at Comiskey Park, she would of course meet many ballplayers, at one point she met someone from the New York Yankees and was told, “That young guy has a great future,” that player was Lou Gehrig. The paths of the Chicago girl and the New York City boy would not really cross again until 1931.
Eleanor’s new poker companion, Kitty McHie insisted she stop by for a drink at her penthouse apartment, as it turned out, Lou Gehrig was there. “Big, handsome, successful, I thought. All those things,” Eleanor wrote, “And, as luck would have it, painfully shy.” That night, however, “The ‘shy one’ suddenly became the bold one, singled me out and spent the whole time giving me a shy man’s version of the rush.” Always the gentleman, and the professional, Lou Gehrig knew the team had a midnight curfew, so he offered to walk Eleanor home and then, as she recalled, “abruptly said good night and disappeared into the dark.”
A week later a package arrived for Eleanor, inside was a diamond-cut crystal necklace, something Lou Gehrig returned from a Japanese barnstorming tour with. The couple became corresponding and, over the next year, a love affair was born. Two versions of the story of how the happy couple became engaged are in the public domain, one has Lou trying to ask after dinner with a friend in Detroit with Eleanor reportedly saying he, “began to stutter to himself, saying incoherent things.” Before, as the story goes, Eleanor broke in and said, “Honey, I know what you’re trying to say, and the answer is ‘yes.’”.
Another version is the couple had a phone fight one night and the next morning Gehrig showed up outside her office window and called her outside. Eleanor did a double-take before racing downstairs and in front of the whole Century of Progress staff arriving for work, we kissed madly in the center of Grant Park. The couple went to the Drake Hotel and had breakfast with the neither one remembering who actually proposed, just that the wedding planning was underway. They were married on Saturday, September 30, 1933, the next to last day of the season.
The 1934 season saw the newlywed Yankees’ first basemen win the Triple Crown, posting a .363 batting average with 49 home runs and 165 runs batted in. Along the way, the new bride started to understand more about her husband and how winning was the most important to him. Eleanor would pick him up after home games and could tell when the team lost, “silence for the half-hour ride to New Rochelle,” is what she would recall. Adding he would still be, “playing it all over again through dinner”.
At the end of the 1934 season, Gehrig and some other players made another barnstorming tour of Japan. Since wives were allowed, Eleanor made the trip and the couple extended their trip and crossed Asia, the Middle East and Europe before returning home. On the trip, the couple agreed that no matter how the All-Star first baseman was playing, he would retire on June 19, 1938, his thirty-sixth birthday. The year and date proving nearly correct, but for the wrong reason.
In 1938, the Captain of the Yankees reached his 2000th consecutive game. As was her style, Eleanor suggested to make headlines, her husband stop at game number 1999. The team planned a ceremony to mark game number 2000 and his Eleanor commented, “all they’ll do is hang a horseshoe of flowers around your neck.” Gehrig, appalled at the idea, left for the ballpark. When he returned, he found Eleanor waiting for him wearing nothing but a giant horseshoe and a grin of embarrassment.
The rest of the 1938 season proved difficult for Lou Gehrig, despite the team winning their third straight World Series, their first baseman had long batting slumps, and looked slow on the field. Even at home, Eleanor noticed simple things, such as holding kitchenware became difficult. Even when the couple would go ice skating, Lou would lose his balance more than normal.
Extra weeks of conditioning during spring training in 1939 did not help, in fact, Lou Gehrig only looked worse. On May 2, in game number 2,130, the Yankees Captain pulled himself from a game in Detroit because he felt he was hurting the team. He would compose a letter to his wife:
“It was inevitable, although I dreaded the day, and my thoughts were with you constantly—how the thing would affect you and I—that was the big question and the most important thought underlying everything. I broke before the game because I thought so much of you. Not because I didn’t know you are the bravest kind of partner but because my inferiority grabbed me and made me wonder and ponder if I could possibly prove myself worthy of you.”
Friends of Eleanor set up an appointment with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for Lou to be checked out; a road trip for the Yankees in Chicago would seem them take a flight north. Eleanor asked her headstrong husband if he would do her the “favor” of taking the appointment. His reply was, “Yes, pal”.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS, was the diagnosis; the date was June 19, 1939, Lou Gehrig’s thirty-sixth birthday.
Fifteen days later, on July 4, 1939, as part of his famous “Luckiest Man of the Face of the Earth” speech, Lou Gehrig thanked his wife Eleanor for having “been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed.”
Eleanor never allowed her husband’s true condition to be revealed to him, secretly writing to his doctors at the Mayo Clinic, “I feel we must all lie like mad. I want him to keep a thread of hope; there is no point in adding mental torture to the horrible experience he is now going through.”
She explained, and perhaps justified herself years later by saying, “If Gehrig ever fully comprehended it was all a ruse, he put up enough of a front that he wholeheartedly believed it. He was the type that if he thought he was going to be a burden on me, he might take that extra pill. If he had gotten his hands on a medical book and found out what I was in for, he wouldn’t have allowed it.”
On June 2, 1941, Eleanor remember, “The most beatified expression instantly spread across Lou’s face, and I knew the precise moment he had gone.”
Eleanor Gehrig died on March 6, 1984, her eightieth birthday. Her greatest contribution to her husband’s legacy was her tireless efforts to promote ALS research. While knowing her husband would never come back, she would attempt to slay the “tyrant” that had killed him. To this day, the Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Muscular Dystrophy Association/ALS Multidisciplinary Care Center at Columbia University, where Lou Gehrig attended college, is at the center of clinical trials and treatment for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and related paralytic diseases.
Credit goes to Tara Krieger of www.sabr.org for much of the information in this story.