Early in 1937 Lou Gehrig went to Hollywood. One of the most recognizable baseball icons in America, Lou seemed ripe for exploitation as a movie star. Christy Walsh, his agent, arranged for Lou to have a screen test for a role in an upcoming Principal Productions feature. Gehrig and Walsh entrained for California, leaving Eleanor Gehrig behind at the couple’s home in New Rochelle.
Lou’s screen test turned out to be magical, impressing not only himself but also Sol Lesser, president of the studio, despite the sudden appearance of a penguin who waddled across the stage during his audition. Lesser and Walsh hammered out a one-picture deal that would bring Lou back to film in California after the 1937 season. Tentatively titled “The Trail Blazers,” the finished movie would be released as “Rawhide” with Gehrig receiving second billing behind the star Smith Ballew. Filming began in January of 1938 and “Rawhide” premiered in March of that year, an amazing production schedule when compared to today’s movies.
During his 1937 visit to movieland, Lou Gehrig became the toast of Hollywood. He met studio executives, toured movie sets, was guest of honor at receptions, attended prize fights, went to the races and ate at the best restaurants. He drew the line at being photographed with Hollywood glamour girls. He feared that these images would appear in New York papers and offend Eleanor.
In a hurry to get home after his sunny California jaunt, Lou packed hastily and raced for the station to catch a train to New York. As any good agent would do, Christy Walsh checked Lou’s room to see if he had left anything behind. He had. Walsh discovered Lou’s nightshirt hanging in a closet. This was no ordinary Hollywood-style silk nightshirt. His sleeping garment was wool, made in one piece, buttoned at the neck and hanging below the knees. It was the type that old men had been wearing for almost a century.
What should Walsh do with Lou’s nightshirt? He was not only an agent, but a promoter who had connections all over California. He was also a noted prankster. Walsh raced from studio to studio in Hollywood, begging female stars like Mae West, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Jeannette MacDonald to sign Lou’s nightshirt. Within hours, Lou’s sleeping shirt boasted over twenty-four signatures of stars and starlets, some complemented by prominent kisses in bold, red lipstick. Walsh then boxed up the nightshirt and sent it airmail to Eleanor so that it would arrive before her forgetful husband.
In her memoir, My Luke and I, Eleanor never mentioned Christy Walsh’s prank, but there was no dearth of jokes about his reception in New Rochelle. One account had Eleanor tapping her foot upon his arrival at the train station. Others quipped that Gehrig was “out at home.” Some admitted that the world would never know what went on behind closed doors once the pair has some privacy. There was, however, an announcement that Eleanor would accompany Lou on all future trips outside of the baseball season. Weeks later, Lou Gehrig would still blush when asked about his celebrated nightshirt. It may be presumed that when checking out of hotels in the future, Lou made a thorough inspection of his room prior to packing his suitcase.