Lou Gehrig was the first athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties. But who knew that the Iron Horse was also a grape nut?
That’s the impression one gets after reading three letters the New York Yankees Hall of Famer wrote sometime in the 1930s to a grape farmer in New York.
The letters are part of the October 2022 sale by California-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions that ends later this week.
The handwritten letters, one penned on paper bearing the letterhead of The Brunswick Hotel in Boston, feature Gehrig’s distinctive, flowing cursive style. They were sent to Fred Lichtenwalter, said to be a grape farmer in the far west region of New York.
Ron Keurajian, the author of the 2012 book, Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide, said the handwriting and signatures are consistent with Gehrig’s penmanship “circa 1930.”
“They are choice examples of his handwriting,” Keurajian said. “While the content is routine, they are superior display specimens.”
The letters were submitted to PSA for authentication.
One would assume that since Gehrig was in Boston, one of the letters was written during the baseball season when the Yankees would be playing the Red Sox. The letters are undated, and unfortunately there is no envelope, which would include Lichtenwalter’s address to confirm his state of residence.
Lichtenwalter lived in the fertile farmland of New York’s Lake Erie region. It is one of New York’s four prime areas for growing grapes, along with Long Island, the Hudson River and the Finger Lakes.
Gehrig’s letters are straightforward and exhibit the earnest, humble character that defined him.
“Enclosed please find $10 for the grapes you shipped my mother,” Gehrig writes in the first letter. “They sure were wonderful and arrived in the very best condition. I sure want to thank you once more and tell you how much we appreciated them.”
The note ends with Gehrig’s signature. The paper measures 5 inches by 6½ inches on “bifolium stationery,” according to the auction house.
The Lichtenwalters lived in Westfield in Chautauqua County, located halfway between Buffalo and Erie, Pennsylvania. There were two men named Fred – one was born in 1865, and his son, born in 1895. Both men spent parts of their lives working for railroad companies in upstate New York. Certainly, both men could have been growing grapes on the side.
Apparently, Gehrig enjoyed the grapes — a lot. His second letter to Lichtenwalter is less formal, with the salutation, “Dear friend Fred.”
He asks Lichtenwalter to send him 2,500 pounds of grapes “if it doesn’t inconvenience you.” He adds that “Babe” wants half of them, an apparent reference to teammate Babe Ruth (The Grapes of Ruth?).
“But ship them all to me, and also the bill and I’ll straighten it all out with you,” Gehrig writes. “As I told you in Clev. (Cleveland), those grapes last year were marvelous, and I hope this years (sic) crop is just as good.”
Gehrig then asks Lichtenwalter to contact him by letter in Washington, D.C., at the Wardman Park Hotel (now known as the Marriott Wardman Park), a hotel notable for airing the first televised episode of Meet the Press in 1947.
The letter ends with Gehrig’s signature and his home address — 9 Meadow Lane, New Rochelle, N.Y. — the house he bought for his parents and lived between 1928 and 1933.
The auction house notes that the two-page letter has The Brunswick Hotel letterhead and measures 6 inches by 9½ inches. There is some “mousing” along the edges and shows evidence of being folded.
In the third letter, Gehrig appears to be clarifying a misunderstanding, emphasizing that he is happy with the grapes and their cost.
“Sorry you misinterpreted my last note. Was not questioning price or any thing,” Gehrig writes. “We were wondering whether we had paid you or not.
“Haven’t a complaint in the world, except thanks for your courtesies. While I’m at it please send 60 baskets this fall.”
Sounds like a satisfied customer.
The letter ends with Gehrig’s signature.
The single-page letter measures 6 ¾ inches by 10 inches. There are folds and mousing along the bottom edge.
The auction listing notes a starting bid of $21,000.