The grave site quickly became a lure for fans who wanted to pay their respects to the Iron Horse, whose career ended abruptly in 1939 when he was found to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

So many people showed up at the grave site that the grass became shoddy and worn down. Even Gehrig’s widow, Eleanor, stopped visiting. Her lawyer Milton Eisenberg asked the cemetery in 1944 about the cost of erecting a chain and two poles at the entrance of the plot to discourage trespassers.

“She seeks, by this means, to keep picknickers out,” Eisenberg wrote in a letter to the cemetery.

And just two years later, the Gehrig family and the Hall of Fame began discussions about removing Gehrig’s ashes from Valhalla and sending them to Cooperstown. Gehrig’s parents raised the idea first. And it was subsequently reported by Fred Lieb, a sportswriter close to the Gehrigs, in The Sporting News.

Soon after Lieb’s article was published, Stephen Clark, the founder and president of the Hall, told Paul Kerr, its treasurer, of a plan he had thought up. It would be part of a major addition to the museum that would double the Hall’s size when construction was completed in 1950.

Photo

Lou and Eleanor Gehrig were married in 1933.

Credit
Associated Press

Correspondence stored at the Hall details the discussions between the two men. “What would you think,” Clark asked Kerr at one point, of a “memorial tablet to be placed in the wall beneath Lou Gehrig’s tablet with a suitable inscription stating behind it are the ashes of Lou Gehrig?”

Kerr, according to the correspondence, responded with an even grander notion, in which the cremated remains of other members of the Hall could be brought to Cooperstown as well. “If there are no legal or technical reasons why it should not be done,” he said, “I would think that a repository for the ashes of the immortals would add immeasurably to the creation of a shrine of baseball.”

Transforming the Hall of Fame into more than a museum was a bold thought, although it might have struck some as a little unsettling.

But Clark and Kerr were not kidding, according to the correspondence. They asked Harry St. Clair Zogbaum, the architect who had designed the annex, to sketch a large, outdoor stone memorial for Gehrig, according to documents in the Hall’s library. Perhaps that would have been where the urn of ashes would actually have ended up. They also asked the village of Cooperstown, which is in upstate New York, for approval to bring cremated remains into the Hall.

Meanwhile, Kerr traveled to Valhalla to see the Gehrig grave site and reported to Clark in early 1950 that a cemetery executive told him that he would be “very sorry to see Lou Gehrig removed” but that he agreed it was more appropriate for him to be in Cooperstown.

At some point after Gehrig’s parents first proposed sending their son’s ashes to Cooperstown, Eleanor herself embraced the idea. She was the guardian of her husband’s legacy, kept meticulous scrapbooks devoted to his life and career and vetted the script of “The Pride of the Yankees,” the movie made about his life and death.

Perhaps she also thought it would be better for her husband’s ashes to be in Cooperstown because of intrusions at the grave site in Valhalla. At one point, there might have even been an attempted break-in by someone trying to steal the urn, an episode she later recounted to her lawyer George Pollack, according to an article in the Syracuse Post-Standard in 1995.

Until the summer of 1950, the correspondence continued between Eleanor Gehrig and Hall officials as they tried to agree on a plan to relocate the ashes.

But then the talks suddenly ended, perhaps because of a gossip item that July in The New York Daily News that spoke of the plan. Eleanor Gehrig’s lawyer John Looman reminded the Hall of Fame that “discretion” in their talks had been “of paramount importance” to avoid publicity.

After that, the talks never resumed. Nor did the ashes of other cremated Hall of Famers ever find a home in Cooperstown.

Jeff Idelson, the president of the Hall, said that the desire of Gehrig’s parents and wife to send his ashes to Cooperstown “speaks volumes about the reverence they had for the Hall of Fame to protect and promote Lou’s legacy.’’

“If it had come to fruition, it certainly would have been unique,’’ he said. But even without the ashes, there is still Gehrig’s bronze plaque. It was one of the first in the Hall, and after the latest inductions, it will be one of 317, part of an enduring monument that shows no signs of losing its hold on the American public.

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