Editor’s note: The Yankees’ post-season prospects are not looking too hot at the moment, so we’re going to fire up the Hot Stove League a little early. This article is reprinted with permission from PinstripedBible.com.
By Joe Connor
I grew up in Morristown, surrounded by rabid Yankee fans. Our TV was always tuned to WPIX at game time.
Every time a ball was just out of reach of a Yankee shortstop, my dad would tell me how Frank Crosetti would have put that one in his back pocket. My father and my uncle would regale me with stories of going to the Stadium in the ‘20s and ‘30s to see Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio play.
My father also told me that he saw Gehrig play in Morristown in the early ‘20s.
My dad was a child in the early ‘20s. He was an honest man, not one to weave tall tales, but seeing Gehrig play in Morristown just didn’t make sense.
Morristown never had a minor-league team, so Gehrig couldn’t have played here as a minor-leaguer. None of the nearby colleges had big-time baseball programs back then, so Gehrig couldn’t have been here playing a road game for Columbia. For years, I wrote it off as just one of those family stories.
Several years ago, I found myself in Hennessey’s, a Morristown bar that could have been the model for Cheers. I looked at the photos on the wall. They were the standard stuff you expect to see in a neighborhood bar, like pictures of the local bowling teams from the ‘50s.
I was just killing time looking at these pictures and seeing if I could recognize anyone in them, when one photo leaped out at me.
It was a faded photo of Morristown’s town baseball team, dated, I believe, 1922. From The Glory of Their Times, I knew that town baseball teams were a big deal in the early part of the century. Major-league ball was somewhat distant. Television hadn’t yet been invented and teams didn’t broadcast their games on the radio.
The town teams were a source of civic pride in a baseball-crazed nation. Beating a rival town was cause for a community celebration, while losing led to community mourning. Towns often lured the best players with jobs or cash. A few bets may have also changed hands, and ringers were not unheard of. There were no age limits. If you were good enough, you played. It didn’t matter if you were 17 or 42.
I looked at the photo more carefully. The team was made up of athletic-looking young men, wearing the baggy flannel uniforms of their day. The front of their uniforms said Morristown in capital letters. One player stood out. He was far bigger and broader than the rest and looked like a man among boys. He wore the bemused expression I had seen in countless other photos. It was Lou Gehrig.
That photo supported the account my father had told me, but the context still didn’t make sense. What was Gehrig doing here? Recently, I began searching and found the answers.
Gehrig graduated from Commerce High School in 1921 and accepted a football scholarship to Columbia University. He decided to play minor-league ball that summer.
One story is that Giants manager John McGraw suggested that he play minor-league ball under an assumed name to get experience and protect his college eligibility.
Gehrig went to Connecticut and played for the Hartford Senators, a Giants affiliate, under the name Lou Louis. He played in 12 games and batted .261 with no home runs. (I guess he didn’t see curveballs like that at Commerce High School.)
After two weeks, the authorities figured out who Gehrig was, Columbia made him quit the Senators, and he lost a year of college eligibility.
Whether from stubbornness, the need for extra money or love for the game, Gehrig didn’t learn his lesson. For parts of the next two years, while still at Columbia, he played for the Morristown town team under the name Lou Long.
This was a more circumspect venue for Gehrig, since this was not a minor-league team and Morristown played only on Sundays.
Morristown played its games on a field in the Irish section of town known as Collinsville (not to be confused with the other Irish section of town, Little Dublin).
Gehrig probably took the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western train (the ol’ Delay, Linger & Wait) to Morristown and walked a mile up Evergreen Avenue (now Martin Luther King Avenue) to the field. While it was widely known locally that Lou Long was really Gehrig from Columbia, no one spilled the beans.
We all know the rest of the story. Yankee scout Paul Kritchell signed Gehrig in June 1923. After that, Wally Pipp got a headache and Gehrig played his way into the Hall of Fame.
Now, my dad is gone, as is Hennessey’s. I hope that the 1922 Morristown team photo found a good home with the local historical society. The Collinsville field, too is gone, with houses, a church and a playground there now. But every time I drive by, I stare lovingly at the site and think, “Yeah, my dad did see Gehrig play here.”
Joe Connor is retired from the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, where he worked for 27 years.