Reader Mike wrote in to ask, "Did Sports Illustrated publish a picture of Lou Gehrig with his balls visible?" because those are the kind of questions we get. Your answer, Mike: I don't know. But it's not for a lack of research.
They look like balls, right? Skin colored, and lopsided, not at all like a stray fold in his one-strap. I talked with Craggs and he didn't think they were balls. He figured Gehrig would have worn something under the bodysuit. So I poked around a bit to find out A) why was Lou Gehrig dressed as Tarzan, and B) what did the Iron Horse have on underneath his leopard skin? The answer to both leads us back to Old Hollywood, and one of baseball's earliest PR stunts.
In 1936, MGM lost the rights for the highly popular series of Tarzan movies to producer Sol Lesser. But there was a major problem. Johnny Weissmuller, the former Olympic swimmer who had starred as Tarzan in three films, was still under contract to MGM. Lesser let it be known that he wanted to go ahead with the property, but needed a new Ape Man.
Enter Christy Walsh, sometimes referred to as "baseball's first agent." Walsh was more carnival barker than negotiator, and he played a massive role in turning his two most famous clients—Gehrig and Babe Ruth—into larger-than-life icons. One of his early masterpieces was to assemble a team of doctors and scientists to examine Ruth to see if there might be a physiological reason he was so good. The result was this 1921 article in Popular Science, carrying the headline "Why Babe Ruth is Greatest Home-Run Hitter." It featured pseudo-scientific findings like
The tests revealed the fact that Ruth is 90 per cent efficient compared with a human average of 60 per cent. That his eyes are about 12 per cent faster than those of the average human being. That his ears function at least 10 per cent faster than those of the ordinary man. That his nerves are steadier than those of 499 out of 500 persons.
When Walsh heard that Hollywood was looking for a new Tarzan, he decided Lou Gehrig was the man for the job—or at least that the attention would be good for his career. Two weeks after the Yankees won the '36 World Series, Walsh leaked Gehrig's interest to the papers. They were all over it.
"Gehrig has offered his talent to Hollywood," began an Oct. 20 Associated Press article. "He is willing temporarily to swap the 'Iron Man' monicker for 'Tarzan.'"
He was asked whether he'd have a problem working with the beasts of the jungle. "Afraid of animals?" he scoffed. "No! At least I'm not afraid of Tigers—I've faced many of 'em in 12 years of baseball—but those Lions, well, we'll have to wait and see."
Gehrig faced the inevitable question of who would play the Jane to his Tarzan, and proved he'd have trouble shaking the aw-shucks image that had served him so well.
Whom would you prefer?" someone asked. Lou squirmed uneasily in his chair and said:
"I could act much better with my wife in my arms."
However, in the next breath, he admitted Irene Dunne is his screen favorite.
"Do you think you have as much S.A. as Weissmuller?" he was asked.
"S.A., you know—sex appeal."
"I'll leave that up to you fellows, and the ladies—if I get the chance."
Walsh continued the PR blitz. He hired a photographer to shoot pictures of the 33-year-old Gehrig dressed up as Tarzan, wielding a massive club, swinging from a branch. Those photos were distributed to newspapers across the country.
"I guess the public's entitled to a look at my body," Gehrig said.
Many of those photos can be seen here, at an Edgar Rice Burroughs tribute site—though, curiously, not the photo in question. Jonathan Eig, in his 2006 biography of Gehrig, describes the portfolio (emphasis mine):
"In one, Gehrig wore a leopard-skin loincloth only slightly bigger than a jock strap and swung a papier-maché war club, as if batting against a coconut-hurling ape. In another, he wore a caveman-style outfit that covered one shoulder and came down barely low enough to cover his crotch and rear end.
"These were the most revealing portraits of Gehrig's body ever taken...His torso formed a perfect V. His shoulders and forearms were as taut as rope. His chest looked like a hunk of marble. His stomach revealed not an ounce of fat. Yet while his upper body looked like something out of an anatomy textbook, his lower body appeared to belong to another species, neither man nor ape. Each thigh was bigger than many a man's waist, each calf the size of a Christmas ham."
Returning to the mystery of Lou Gehrig's balls, we don't find the answer in the other photos—but we find an answer. What was under Gehrig's leopard-print tunic? A leopard-print loincloth. A loose-fitting loincloth, no better at preventing the occasional testicle escape than an average pair of well-worn boxer shorts, especially in the split second between the wearer thrusting his arms above his head and the bodysuit settling to provide coverage.
The Iron Horse's Iron Balls? A conclusive answer is lost in the darkroom of history. And no more Gehrig-as-Tarzan images exist, because Sol Lesser turned him down in favor of Glenn Morris, who had taken gold in the decathlon at that summer's Berlin Olympics. 1938's Tarzan's Revenge wasn't received well by audiences—they wouldn't accept anyone other than Weissmuller. Lesser gave up his rights to future Tarzan films.
Christy Walsh's stunt had succeeded, though—Gehrig was in the news all offseason, and the attention led to his first and only film appearance; he starred in 1938's Rawhide as himself, but in this reality, the born-and-raised New Yorker gives up baseball to move out West and become a cattle rancher. And here I am, 77 years later, still studying the Tarzan publicity photos—though maybe not for the reasons Walsh intended.
Lesser would later explain why Gehrig wasn't the man to play Tarzan—those legs. Those thunderous tree trunks that gave Gehrig the power to hit 493 home runs, despite a not-overly-muscled top half. The legs didn't look right for a lithe Ape Man, swinging through the jungle. And they weren't the legs of a Hollywood leading man—"more functional than decorative," Lesser called them.
Edgar Rice Burroughs himself weighed in, and wasn't impressed. He sent Gehrig a telegram.
"Having seen several pictures of you as Tarzan," Burroughs wrote, "I want to congratulate you on being a swell first baseman."