On Friday night, while the New York Yankees’ season was ending on my TV, I heard a story about perhaps the greatest Bronx Bomber of them all—one that was way more interesting than their Game 5 loss.
I’d called my buddy Mark Farkas, who I’ve known and loved since I was a kid, and he happened to be at his boyhood home visiting his mom, Linda Farkas, who I’ve known and loved just as long. I’d heard Mark and his siblings occasionally call her “Linda Lou” with a giggle through the years. But I didn’t know that actually was her real name and hadn’t heard the amazing tale of how she got it. Because the Yankees were on, that story came up.
It starts back to the summer of 1937, just after her parents, Ruth and John Etchberger of Harrisburg, Pa., discovered they were going to have their first baby. John Etchberger was a traveling insurance salesman and a big sports fan, particularly of baseball, and particularly of the Yankees. His favorite player on his favorite team was Lou Gehrig, whom he preferred even over the recently retired Babe Ruth.
Family lore has it that John had been telling people for a while that when he had a child he was going to name the kid Lou Gehrig Etchberger in tribute to the future Hall of Famer. He had a habit of writing letters to sportswriters and athletes to let them know what was on his mind. And so after finding out about the pregnancy, he decided to write to Gehrig to impart the news about the pending birth of his first child, and to ask for the durable slugger’s permission to name the boy after him.
Mr. Etchberger didn’t know how to get his letter to Gehrig. He had no street address to reach the team even. So he just put “Lou Gehrig, Yankee Stadium, New York NY” on the envelope and sent it off.
These were simpler times.
About three weeks later, a postcard arrived at the Etchbergers’ Harrisburg home, postmarked August 15, 1937, from the Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia. It was from the Iron Horse himself.
“I’d be flattered,” Gehrig wrote.
(The box score from that day shows that the Yankees played the Philadelphia Athletics at Shibe Park. Gehrig, hitting .368 on the season, went 1-3, with two runs and an RBI.)
Now all John had to do was hold up his end. Fast forward to February 12, 1938 and Ruth delivers a healthy baby ... girl.
“There wasn’t a sonogram back then!” Linda tells me. “He just wanted a boy so bad, that’s what he was going to have.”
Fathers didn’t hang out in delivery rooms back then, either. And when John got word that he’s now the father or a beautiful baby girl, he didn’t take it so well.
“He didn’t even go to the hospital to visit,” she says. “He was so mad I was a girl!”
At the five-day mark, John went to the hospital to bring his wife and child home. While he couldn’t change the gender, John did what he could to live up to the pledge he’d made to his favorite boy of summer. He took over the naming chores. Hence, Linda Lou Etchberger.
Some years before his 1991 death, John dug out the postcard he’d gotten long ago from his hero, and he told the girl who’d once disappointed him just by not being a boy that he wanted her to have his most precious sports artifact. It’s now on display in the living room of her home.
John and Ruth had three more kids after Linda Lou. None were named after baseball heroes.