SSTN Interviews Author Alan D. Gaff
Today we are here with historian and author Alan D. Gaff. President of Historical Invesigations, a company specializing in historical research. With over 40 years experience in American history, Alan has published on everything from the Civil War to Damon Runyon. Alan’s books have won Awards of Merit from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, a University Press Best Seller, and finalist for both the Distinguished Writing Award Army Historical Foundation and New Mexico and Arizona Book Award in Biography.
As it relates to baseball, Alan is the author of Lou Gehrig: The Lost Memoir.
Alan, here at SSTN, we are big fans of Lou Gehrig. He is an icon about whom much has been written about. For your book, you chose to focus on his great 1927 season as told through his own words from a newspaper on the west coast. Please tell us how you discovered this lost memoir of this exciting time period.
Back in 2005, the University of Oklahoma Press published my book Blood in the Argonne: The “Lost Battalion” of World War I. During my research, I discovered that one member of this noted military unit, James Bragg, had returned to West Virginia after the war and had been arrested for moonshining during Prohibition. When Bragg appeared in court with his Distinguished Service Cross, the judge tossed out his case. Captain Leo Stromee, another member of the Lost Battalion, was hired as a Prohibition agent in California, but became embroiled in a scheme to smuggle whiskey into that state. Stromee escaped justice when the primary witness against the alleged conspirators turned up dead.
After more than a decade, I began to research an article about these two war heroes who had returned from France only to become entangled in enforcement of the Volstead Act. While scrolling through various microformed California newspapers, I chanced upon a baseball column titled “Following the Babe,” written by Lou Gehrig and appearing as a serial in The Oakland Tribune. I immediately lost all interest in Leo Stromee, James Bragg and Prohibition. An intense search of the internet failed to find a reference to Gehrig’s story, so I transcribed the columns, making but few editorial changes. I then contacted my agent, Roger S. Williams, who in turn put me in touch with Stuart Roberts at Simon & Schuster. Their enthusiasm for this project led to the publication of Lou’s memoirs, written at the age of twenty-four, supplemented by a biographical essay of his life story composed by myself. It should be noted that previous biographers of Lou Gehrig had never located or used these newspaper columns.
What aspect of Lou Gehrig’s life, or his character, drew you most to him?
The most fascinating observation to be made about Lou Gehrig’s life was that it was almost impossible to describe without using superlatives. He had three loves, aside from baseball, which were his family, physical conditioning and fishing, in that order. Lou, the only survivor of four Gehrig children, was devoted to his mother Christina, who had spent her adult life supporting the family while husband Heinrich battled ill health and sporadic employment. A photograph that accompanied an announcement of Lou’s life story showed him drying dishes that Christina had washed in the family kitchen. Marriage to Eleanor Twitchell in 1933 shifted this family dynamic. Eleanor became the new object of his affection and undivided attention with only infrequent visits to his mother and father. She completely changed Lou’s life, introducing him to literature, opera, fine food, snappy attire and world travel. In turn, Lou stopped his frugal lifestyle, lavished expensive gifts on Eleanor, took vacations and the pair even became fishing buddies. Throughout his entire life, however, he retained his boyish spirit and trademark humility.
After being picked on for being fat as a child, Lou spent his life building a tremendously muscled body and keeping it in shape. From his childhood, when he accompanied his father to the local turnverein, to his marriage with Eleanor, when he had a regular workout routine using their full-sized piano, Gehrig sought to improve his physique. When he entered the American League, he neither drank alcohol nor smoked the ever-present cigarettes in order to keep his body pure. But he soon developed a habit of smoking a pipe and gradually came to enjoy a casual beer and cigarette after a game and with friends. But he never gave up on his physical regimen.
Gehrig’s third love was fishing. He accompanied Heinrich on trips to the Hudson and Harlem Rivers where he first encountered rods, reels, nets and fish for supper. Christina was also an avid angler and she would often go with Lou to an undisclosed fishing spot where the pair would haul in basketfuls of eels that she would pickle as treats for her son. These pickled eels also became a favorite of Yankee players, especially Babe Ruth who would eat almost anything. Although I have included Christina’s recipe for pickled eels in the book, I must confess that I never have nor will I ever try them. For those of you more adventurous when it comes to food, good luck. Lou and Eleanor made quite a team when it came to fishing. Once Lou had experienced angling in the Great South Bay off Long Island or in the Gulf Stream while in Florida for spring training, he was no longer interested in freshwater fish. Saltwater was the place to be, whether pulling in cod with Babe Ruth or landing marlin with Eleanor, his new love was the sea. I have posted a series of Gehrig fishing stories on a blog at my website alandgaff.com
Lou Gehrig was not a controversial figure. He was in many ways, the complete opposite of his great teammate Babe Ruth. I would imagine that these newspaper pieces are pretty straight forward, yet within them, I am sure you were able to find aspects of Gehrig’s character, maybe even some things that no one knew before. What was the most surprising thing you found out about Lou Gehrig through your research?
Some of the most interesting pieces of research came in discovering facts about his life that have been missed or ignored by previous biographers. First, there was the precise place of his birth—a four-story apartment building at 309 East 94th Street in Manhattan. On August 21, 1953 a memorial plaque marking the site was dedicated by his mother, Mayor Impelliterri and Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick. Other attendees included Andy Coakley who had coached Lou at Columbia University, Paul Krichell, the scout who first signed the young Gehrig, Bill Dickey, his last roommate and a host of former Yankees.
Another important discovery was the brawl between Lou and Ty Cobb after a game at Yankee Stadium against the Tigers on May 8, 1926. Lou had claimed that Cobb had ordered Earl Whitehill, the pitcher, to intentionally hit him. Gehrig attempted to confront Whitehill after the pitcher essentially called him a crybaby for complaining about being hit by a pitch. Umpires kept the two players apart. As both teams exited the field through the same tunnel, Lou and Cobb got into a brawl. Punches were thrown, Cobb began to kick with his spikes, Lou fell against a concrete pillar and was briefly knocked unconscious and Babe Ruth finally chased Cobb into the Tiger locker-room. Three months later, Gehrig and Cobb could be seen joking about some supposed rift between them.
I greatly enjoyed writing the final chapter of my biographical essay which concerns Lou Gehrig’s legacy. Where other biographers have concluded their stories with his death and burial, I continued his story on into World War Two. One letter to his wife Eleanor from an American soldier in Libya summed up what thousands of others had in their hearts: “Even though Lou is not over here fighting with us, his spirit and courage did much to instill in us the desire to continue this battle to keep alive the things people like you and Lou stand for—and what America stands for.” On January 17, 1943 Lou’s mother christened the S. S. Lou Gehrig, the first Liberty Ship to be named after a famous athlete. On what would have been his forty-first birthday, the S. S. Lou Gehrig off-loaded troops and vehicles on a Normandy beach in support of the Allied invasion of France. When the ship was not loaded with war materiel, men would play softball in the empty holds, a practice that Lou would have applauded.
Lou Gehrig had been given many nicknames during his lifetime, but my greatest joy was to add one more name to that long list. By 1925, his teammates began referring to him as “Custard Pie,” because it was his favorite dessert and Lou could devour a piece in two, three or four bites depending on his appetite that day.
What do you think made Lou Gehrig such a great player?
To quote Lou’s own words, he was “a ballplayer’s ballplayer.” His thoughts were always focused on the success of the Yankee team, not individual accomplishments. Lou would much rather see a Yankee victory and go 0 for 4 than smack a couple of home runs, go 4 for 4 and lose a game. Personally, he set an incredibly high standard for his own performance, trying to play a perfect game every time he stepped on the diamond. He had a checkered relationship with umpires, arguing what he thought were bad calls and, occasionally, being thrown out of games. But everyone knew these incidents were not personal in nature.
Lou Gehrig was an odd combination of terrific power, strength and stamina offset by a gentle disposition, true sportsmanship and a love for the game of baseball. His upper torso and arms looked like a body builder, allowing him to hit line drives so hard he was terrified that one would someday kill an opposing player. He also had a high tolerance for pain. After his playing days, x-rays disclosed that Lou had sustained seventeen fractures to his hands and fingers, none of which were ever reported to the team. During his streak of playing in 2,130 straight games, he was knocked unconscious several times, endured sore muscles, pulled hamstrings and suffered through common ailments like colds and flu, but always put on his uniform and went to work. He was too tough and too stubborn to sit out a game, thereby establishing a level of reliability that other players could only look at with respect and envy.
I often teach the students about Lou Gehrig’s speech on Lou Gehrig Day. I state how he was dying and yet he said he considered himself “The luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Amazing. What does that speech mean to you?
I agree with other writers who have called Lou Gehrig’s speech the equivalent of a baseball Gettysburg Address. It is sad that only a small portion of an audio recording survives because transcribed accounts (some including crowd reaction) differ in wording. I suspect that is because everyone concentrated on hearing his words and forgot to write them down. Writers, fans, players and invited dignitaries were all overwhelmed. Friend and sportswriter Bob Considine wrote, “This was Gehrig’s last great moment in a sport that will never forget his name.” His old teammate Tony Lazzeri listened to the speech and confessed, “I thought I was through crying when I was kid, but that was before this afternoon.” Lazzeri was not alone. There were few dry eyes among the 61,000 fans who had come to Custard Pie’s goodbye. Even Lou had tears in his eyes as he stumbled back to the Yankee bench, where he asked a friend, “Did my speech sound silly?” Most people are unaware that in the movie Pride of the Yankees, Lou’s remark, “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” was moved from the beginning of his speech to the conclusion for dramatic effect. Virtually no one (except readers of my book) knows that he uttered a similar remark on March 23, 1938 at the premier of Rawhide, his only Hollywood film: “I think I am the luckiest guy in the entire world.” Both remarks show that they came from the heart and were not just an extemporaneous reflection. In today’s world his “sincere” words would have been written by a professional scribe, edited by another expert, rehearsed before delivery and delivered with a dramatic flourish with an eye toward a posting on social media. Sometimes old is better, certainly more genuine.
When we write and research, we learn. What was the biggest lesson you learned in writing this book?
My biggest lesson learned during this research was that skills developed in one subject in a specific area of study can often be transferred to another. All of my previous publications have been in the field of military history with a special emphasis on personal stories. My experience had always been that contemporary newspapers were an excellent source of material that is often overlooked. Many authors include newspaper sources in their bibliographies, but only from major metropolitan cities—New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, etc. It has been my belief that most of the really good information can be found in smaller publications where more space can be devoted to newsworthy topics. For example, Lou’s “Tips on How to Watch a Ball Game” were syndicated and appeared in papers like the Detroit Free Press and the Rochester, New York Democrat and Chronicle. Gehrig’s original columns, titled “Following the Babe,” first appeared in smaller markets like Oakland, Pittsburgh and even Ottawa, Canada. To become an expert researcher, one must learn to leave no stone unturned.
You also have a book about Damon Runyon – another famous New York Sports personality. What can you tell us about that book and about Damon Runyon?
Amid the Ruins, which I have edited with my son Donald H. Gaff, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa, is a collection of Damon Runyon’s World War One’s dispatches from Europe. Although an iconic writer of fiction and a noted playwright, these dispatches, indeed his entire World War career, have been virtually ignored by Runyon biographers. They appear here for the first time in over 100 years. Runyon’s dispatches capture not only the closing days of the war, but include months of occupation duty in Germany and the return home of American troops. It can be argued that Runyon was a precursor of Ernie Pyle in the next World War since both were more interested in writing about enlisted men and company officers and their experiences. In fact, Runyon wrote that he did not care much for generals.
Do you have other works in process? Please tell us about them.
I have currently finished work on a work of baseball fiction titled Swat Milligan: Peerless Hitter of the Poison Oaks, written by Bozeman Bulger. Along with Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice, Bulger was acknowledged as one of a trio of New York sportswriters as the best in the business. Bulger published this book in 1908, a collection of columns from the New York Evening World, but all copies of it have disappeared. I have reconstructed Bulger’s book from his original columns with some additional material. These popular Milligan stories were reprinted in newspapers all across the country and resulted in a vaudeville skit that played in the United States and Canada for years.
I have also spent time on some military history titles. One titled A Field of Corpses: Death of an American Army recounts the expedition of General Arthur St. Clair into Indian country in 1791. Other military projects in various stages of completion are manuscripts on Fort Sumter and Rogers Rangers in the French and Indian War. Another nearing completion is the account of a Texas Ranger during the Mexican War, on a filibustering campaign in Yucatan and a brief sojourn in California during the Gold Rush. Covid-19 has given me additional time for research and writing.
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
I would like to see more attention paid to lesser known players. For example, the 1927 Yankees have often been referred to as Murderers’ Row, but the original Murderers’ Row in the Yankee lineup was given that name in 1918. Each consecutive year this term was applied to a new combination of hitters as the rosters changed. Because of the success of the 1927 Yankees, all former members of Murderers’ Row have been forgotten. I would like to see a book devoted to those original heavy hitters—Frank Gilhooley, Roger Peckinpaugh, Home Run Baker, Del Pratt, Wally Pipp and Ping Bodie—as well as those who earned a part of that title from 1919-1926.
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
Sad to say, I never saw any baseball players in real life.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
My favorite team as a kid was the New York Yankees. Everybody likes a winner.
Who was your favorite player?
As a pre-teen growing up in the 1950s, like most other kids my idol was Mickey Mantle.
What is your most prized collectible?
For years, my most interesting collectibles were unsealed sets of baseball cards given to me by a brother. These sets contained rookie cards for numerous famous players that have since been found to have used steroids to enhance their performance. I no longer look for baseball collectibles.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
Best group—Beach Boys both before and after Pet Sounds
Best singer—Neil Diamond (early) and Bob Seeger (later)
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
As far as best food, I like pretty much anything, even hospital food (be sure to sneak in your own spices). I do think it is a crime punishable by imprisonment for what some people do to a great chunk of beef by over seasoning it. When I want a steak or prime rib, I want to taste the cow, not what the cow had to eat.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
The major problem of being a co-author with Lou Gehrig is that readers always want to know about his accomplishments and never ask what I did during my limited baseball career. One of my highlights came during a Little League game when I brought play to a dead stop for about fifteen minutes after a single at-bat when I fouled all the game balls into the creek that ran by our diamond. Coaches were digging into bags and trunks looking for suitable replacements while kids tried to retrieve the waterlogged balls from the water. It was quite memorable.
Another unforgettable game was during my Pony League career. Much like Lou Gehrig, I was good at hitting hard line drives. My first time at bat, I hit a liner that bounced off the pitcher’s arm for an infield single. He was taken out to recover on the bench. My next time up, I hit a line drive off a second pitcher’s thigh for another infield hit. This pitcher took a seat beside the first casualty. My following at bat, I smacked a third line drive off the new pitcher’s shoulder for yet another hit. He became the third pitcher to leave the game and sit in the hospital section. When I came to bat the last time, the fourth kid on the mound looked sacred and stared at his coach. The coach looked at me, turned to the pitcher and yelled, “You’re our last pitcher. Walk him!” That was the day I went 3 for 3 and literally knocked three pitchers out of the game.
Alan, that was a fabulous way to end the interview. This was so great and so very informative. Thank you for spending so much time with us.
I wish you continued success and happiness. Always!