Harvey Frommer / Records & Feats / Yankees
by Harvey Frommer
The record of most consecutive games played by a Major League Baseball player now belongs to Cal Ripken, Jr. But for over a half-century, Lou Gehrig controlled it with a stranglehold.
If your recollection is hazy and hard to come by for you, its perfectly understandable. Baltimore's Ripken, Jr. may have broken Gehrig's record on September 8, 1995, but the magic, the drama and the finality of that fabled mark remains with the fabled Yankee.
The streak began for Gehrig on June 1, 1925. It ended on May 2, 1939 - exactly 61 years ago today. In a scene out of baseball's somber ironies, Wally Pipp, whose place Gehrig had taken 2,130 games before, came down from his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan to watch the Yankee-Tiger game and to watch Gehrig perform.
Instead, Pipp saw the Yankee first baseman standing alone at home plate, giving out the lineup card with his name left off it. At age 36, the man they called "The Iron Horse," was engaging in his last hurrah as an active player.
During his incredible streak, Gehrig played when it mattered a great deal and when it didn't matter at all. He played with pain and with pride. He drove himself and his Yankee teammates season after season, a steadying, solid force.
Gehrig was twice beaned during the streak that extended over 14 seasons. On July 13, 1934, pain in his back from what was diagnosed as lumbago was so severe that Gehrig had to be helped off the field in the first inning of a game against Detroit. The streak stood at 1,426. It seemed there was no way he would play the next day.
He did - after a fashion. Listed first in the batting order, Gehrig singled to lead off the game and was then removed for a pinch runner.
It was said that "nothing short of a locomotive will stop Lou Gehrig; he will go on forever". But near the final one-third of the 1938 season the three-time American League MVP began to falter. As the season ended, no one really knew what was wrong with him. But it was clear that his great strength was waning. His zestful, energetic performance on the playing field had become dulled, muted and lethargic.
During spring training 1939, Gehrig grew weaker. His Yankee teammates and his wife, Eleanor, told him to rest, to not drive himself. "Lou," his wife said, "the record is safe. No one will ever come along and break it."
The 1939 season began. Gehrig was once again positioned at first base for the New York Yankees. He would take that famous big swing, but he would only pop up. Still, he played on. Once he bent down to tie his shoelaces and fell down.
When Gehrig benched himself on May 2, 1939, it marked the first time in 15 years that he was out of the Yankee lineup. "I haven't been a bit of good to the team sine the season started," he said. His batting average was .143 - 200 points below his lifetime average.
The great Gehrig would tarry a while like a bowed oak. He was still the captain, still the Pride of the Yankees. He brought the lineup card out to umpires before each game and then from his corner seat in the dugout watched others play baseball.
On June 19, 1939, on his 36th birthday, Lou Gehrig left the Mayo Clinic with a sealed envelope. The results of his examinations and diagnosis were in it: "Mr. Gehrig is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis . . . the nature of this trouble makes it such that Mr. Gehrig will be unable to continue his active participation as a baseball player".
On June 2, 1941, seventeen days short of his 38th birthday, Lou Gehrig would finally succumb to the disease that now bears his name.
Lou Gehrig, Four Home Runs: June 3, 1932
The day could have gone done in history as the one when Lou Gehrig pounded five home runs. He settled for four. In the ninth inning he just missed a fifth homer when Al Simmons made a one-handed snatch of the "Iron Horse's" shot.
In his first at bat in the first inning at Shibe Park in Philadelphia before 7,300 Gehrig mashed the ball into the stands in left-center for a two-run shot. His second home run of the day went over the right field wall in the fourth inning. Home run #3 went into the stands in the fifth inning.
The Athletics' George Earnshaw gave up the first three homers. Philly manager Connie Mack replaced Earnshaw with Leroy Mahaffey who gave up Gehrig's fourth homer in the seventh inning. That shot screamed over the right field wall and tied Ty Cobb's American League record for total bases in game - 16.
Gehrig had two more chances to become the first player to hit five homers in a game (Bobby Lowe and Ed Delahanty had four in the 19th century). When the Yankee hero came to bat in the eighth inning, Philadelphia fans cheered, urging him to hit a home run. He grounded out. The Yankee first baseman came up for the final time in the game in the ninth inning against pitcher Ed Rommel. A fifth home run was missed by inches as Gehrig hit his hardest shot of the day - caught in the furthest part of the park in deep centerfield.
With his heroics, Lou Gehrig became the first player in the 20th century to hit four homers in a game. That was some game, one the Yankees hung on to win, 21-3.