One of my favorite areas of baseball research is finding the “lost years” of a player’s career. What I’m talking about is a season spent playing in the army or semi pro leagues, the latter often under assumed names. Because this wasn’t the big leagues, contemporary coverage was often scanty or non-existant, leading researchers to throw up their hands and declare said year as a “lost season.” There are two examples that I am currently completing for the next issue of ’21’ – Joe DiMaggio’s 1943 season spent with the Santa Ana Army Air Base and Waite Hoyt’s lost Baltimore Dry Docks 1919 season. While these two stories are being completed, I thought I’d toss up one of my first research projects into a player’s “lost year” – that of the time Lou Gehrig played in Morristown, New Jersey under the name “Lou Long.” I am particularly proud of this little piece as I was able to substantiate a rumor I had heard growing up in North Jersey, that the great Gehrig played ball for a town team before he began his career with the Yankees. There was even talk of a faded photo of this mythical team that once hung in a tavern in Morristown, though several attempts at bar-hopping my way through the town led me to assume that whatever establishment it once hung in was no longer around. Several Gehrig biographers briefly note the Hall of Famer’s appearance in semi-pro lineups under assumed names, and one or two even mention “Morristown” as one of those places, yet no one had really taken a good look at this interesting part of Gehrig’s early career. New Jersey writer Joe Connor did some great digging into the Gehrig-Morristown legend and I contacted him to trade information back in 2012. After we talked, Joe was actually able to find the former owner of the tavern and get a shot of the fabled team photograph while I tracked down some local newspaper coverage from the summer of 1922 that included game reports and box scores with a “Lou Long” at first base for Morristown.
So, did this research into Gehrig’s “lost year” result in any kind of earth-shattering reveal about one of the game’s most beloved figures? On the surface, not really. The teenage Gehrig did very well in this semi-pro league, so that wasn’t much of a surprise. Yet, what was intriguing was that Lou Gehrig would willfully choose to violate college athletic rules and play baseball in Morristown for money, something he had been caught at and had his college athletic eligability suspended for the previous summer. And then, after giving his word not to repeat the offense, did so willingly. Gehrig’s life is so often shrouded in an impenetrable saintly cloak, and this violation of both his word and collegiate rules add an interesting dimension to this baseball icon. I am very proud of this story and included a version of it in my book, The League of Outsider Baseball.
In the spring of 1922 a strapping young man stepped off the Manhattan train and into the streets of Morristown, New Jersey. The city-slicker shouldered his bag of baseball equipment and headed to Collinsville Oval where he was hired to play for the local ball club.
Semi-pro town baseball was big-time entertainment all across the country in the days before radio and television brought big league baseball into every home. While many towns fielded teams for the sheer enjoyment of the game, many hired ringers to give their teams the extra edge in order to win bragging rights amongst other local towns.
Morristown, located about 30 miles west of New York City was no different. Besides a few token locals, the majority of the Morristown Athletic Club team was manned by baseball mercenaries, most of whom spent time in the minor leagues and were veterans in the highly competitive New York-New Jersey semi-pro circuit. Second Baseman John Kull had a cup of coffee with the World Champion 1910 Philadelphia A’s and spent half a dozen years in the minors. Pitcher “Rags” Faircloth made it to the majors with the 1919 Phillies and spent almost two decades in the minors. Left fielder Walt Walsh went directly from the semi-pros to Phillies in 1920 and pitcher Bill Mortimer spent time in the Blue Ridge League. Morristown’s manager was Joe Sachs, a semi-pro lifer and former member of the vaunted Paterson Silk Sox, a factory team from North Jersey that before World War I played ball on a big league level.
Taking his place at first base for this team was the 19 year-old introduced as Lou Long. Whether or not anyone knew his real name is not known, but it seems that the press played along, saying only that he came to town with the reputation of being “the Babe Ruth of the semi-pro’s”.
It was the kid’s second season under an alias – the summer before he’d played for the Hartford Senators in the Eastern League as “Lou Lewis”. The first baseman needed the false name because he had an athletic scholarship to Columbia University and if it was revealed he was playing professional baseball it would render him ineligible for collegiate sports.
And that’s exactly what happened in Hartford. After his first couple games the local papers made the mistake of printing the kids real name and although subsequent box scores and stories carried the name “Lou Lewis” the cat was out of the bag. After playing in 12 games for the Senators (and hitting a lack-luster .261) word reached Columbia’s baseball coach Andy Coakley that “Lou Lewis” was really freshman Lou Gehrig. Coakley convinced the kid to leave the team and Gehrig reluctantly gave up a steady paycheck he sorely needed. Coakley then got in contact with the coaches for Cornell, Dartmouth, Middlebury and Amherst and convinced them that the kid had made an innocent mistake. The admission successfully limited Gehrig’s suspension to just one year.
Most Lou Gehrig biographies make it appear as though the teenager was really not cognizant that his college eligibility would be forfeited by playing pro ball for money. Some even chock it up to his being duped by New York Giants manager John McGraw, all part of an evil plan to get the kid kicked out of college and onto the Giants roster. In reality, since he played under a false name it can be argued Gehrig knew exactly what he was doing all along. It was no secret that Gehrig came from a poor immigrant family and played ball against his parents wishes. To earn a paycheck would not only fill his wallet for his upcoming Ivy League freshman year but convince his parent that there was a future in baseball.
That he played the following summer after his suspension was lifted makes it even more apparent he was willing to risk his Columbia scholarship and education for the fast paycheck of a baseball mercenary. Just a few years earlier Jim Thorpe, the super hero of the 1912 Olympics, pioneering pro football player and New York Giants outfielder had his medals taken away for appearing in pro baseball games while in college. While previously some colleges might have turned a blind eye to a player making a few bucks on the side, by the early 1920’s rules governing collegiate athletics were not only much stricter but avidly enforced.
How Morristown secured the services of Gehrig is not known. One clue may be that Morristown’s center fielder Arthur Carroll was a semi-pro player from Brooklyn and had been scouted by the Yankees two seasons earlier. The scout who found Carroll? Andy Coakley. That’s right, the same Andy Coakley and Columbia baseball coach who feigned shock that Gehrig was playing for Hartford the summer before. Maybe the coach agreed to get Gehrig the Morristown gig in order to help the cash-strapped kid out. Morristown was a little more out of the way than Hartford was and not par of professional baseball.
Playing against teams from industrial cities like Bayonne, Hoboken and Boonton, “Lou Long” made quite an impression. In his third game with Morristown he hit back-to-back home runs, reportedly the first time anyone had done that for the local nine. Unlike in Hartford the New Jersey papers did not reveal the first baseman’s real name and he completed the 18 game season with 27 hits for a .450 average. He hit seven doubles, four doubles and four homers to round out his one and only season in the semi-pro trenches.
In the fall Gehrig returned to Columbia where he played football and baseball. Gehrig tore up the 19 game Ivy League circuit, batting a school record .444 with a .937 slugging percentage and seven home runs, earning him the title of the “Babe Ruth of the Ivy Leagues”. He was Columbia’s most effective pitcher as well with a 6-4 record including a 17 strike out game, a record that still stands at the University.
After the college season ended Yankees super scout Paul Krichell signed the young phenom and he was farmed out to the Hartford Senators – this time under his own name – and made his debut as a Yankee before the summer had ended. Today the only reminder that Lou Long ever existed are a few yellowed newspaper clippings and a faded team picture of New Jersey town baseball team from 1922 that once hung in a long gone Morristown tavern.
If you’d like to read more about Lou Gehrig’s season at Columbia University, please buy the Spring 2017 issue of ‘21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball‘ where I tell the full story behind Lou’s lone season in the Ivy League.