WATCHING THE IRON HORSE RUN FOR THE AUTHOR AND HIS BOYHOOD PALS IN '34, IT WAS LOU GEHRIG ALL THE WAY

September 03, 1995

Lou Gehrig was nearly as big a name as Babe Ruth in the early
1930s, when I was a boy (and a newly hatched baseball fan)
growing up near New York City. In 1933, when the Goudey Gum
Company of Boston first put baseball cards in its packets of
bubble gum, the Babe's card was of course the one everyone
wanted. But in '34, when Ruth was going through the motions in
his last, feeble season with the Yankees, it was Gehrig all the
way. That year Goudey put out 84 cards that had a little head
shot of Gehrig on the front, accompanied by the line "Lou Gehrig
says." The copy on the back of each card was in quotes, as
though written by Gehrig himself, something we boys, cynics even
then, didn't really believe. It didn't matter. Anything Lou did
was all right with us. We especially liked the quote on his own
card, which began, "I love the game of baseball and hope to be
in there batting them out for many years to come." That one, we
felt, was legitimate.

Goudey Gum scored a coup with the "Lou Gehrig says" series,
because 1934 turned out to be Gehrig's greatest season. While
the declining Ruth hit only 22 homers and batted a shockingly
low .288 (anything under .300 seemed pitiful for a star in that
era), Gehrig led the American League in hitting (.363), homers
(49) and RBIs (165). In short, he won the Triple Crown.

Unlike the Babe, who was out of the Yankees' starting lineup
more than 40 times that season, Gehrig, as always, played every
game, every day. We boys were aware of his consecutive-game
streak, which had started in 1925, but not in the intense way
that people know about Cal Ripken's. Sportswriters mentioned
Gehrig's streak from time to time and called him the Iron Horse
in salute to his nonstop strength and stamina, but they didn't
dwell on it. The back of Gehrig's 1934 baseball card does not
mention the streak, even though he had broken the old record the
year before.

Irreverently, some sportswriters also called Gehrig Biscuit
Pants. While I didn't understand the reference (and still don't,
although I assume it was an early version of buns), I know it
meant he had an ample rear end. Even today I clearly recall
seeing from the first base side of the grandstand the massive
rectangle of Gehrig's body as he stood at home plate waiting for
a pitch: wide shoulders, big back, broad ass, powerful calves
descending from the knee-length knickers of his uniform. A
strong, solid man packed with muscle.

A boy named George Kenney, who lived across the street from me,
was the son of a sportswriter on the New York Daily News. One
day Mr. Kenney took George along with him to Yankee Stadium,
where, we learned the next day, George met Gehrig.

"What's he like?" we asked.

"He's big," George said, "and he has big hands. When I shook
hands with him I couldn't see my own hand."

"You shook hands with him?" we said, marveling, for that was as
close to Gehrig as the rest of us would ever get. We saw him
from a distance if we went to Yankee Stadium, and once in a
while there might be a glimpse of him in a newsreel at the
movies, but otherwise he was as removed from us as a god ought
to be. There was no television to show him up close, and only a
few radio interviews, none of which I ever heard. I had no idea
what his voice sounded like until after the streak ended and
Gehrig, deathly ill, was saluted on a day held in his honor at
Yankee Stadium. I remember the surprise I felt when I saw the
newsreel of that day and heard the touching little speech in
which the dying Gehrig referred to himself as "the luckiest man
on the face of the earth." What startled me was that Gehrig
spoke the words in a strong New Yawk accent: the luckiest maaan
on the face-a the aith. I suppose I had always felt that his
voice would have the accent and timbre of a movie star's.

We didn't follow his streak day by day, wondering how long it
would last. It was just there, like, oh, Ebbets Field--sure to be
gone someday, but not now and not for any day soon. Yet in that
summer of 1934 the streak became perilously attenuated. Late in
June, in an exhibition game against a Yankee farm team in
Norfolk, Va., Gehrig hit a home run, and in his next time at bat
he was beaned. Players didn't wear batting helmets in those
days, and Gehrig lay unconscious for five minutes before he was
helped off the field. Later he shrugged off the injury, said he
was O.K. except for a bump on his head and a bad headache, and
promised to be in the lineup the following day when the Yankees
would resume the regular season in Washington against the
Senators. He was, and he hit a record-tying three straight
triples in his first three times at bat before rain in the fifth
inning washed both the game and his triples out of the record
book.

During a road trip two weeks later, Gehrig came down with an
excruciating pain in his back that newspapermen called
"lumbago," a popular diagnosis in those days, as "virus" is
today. Comic-strip characters were forever suffering with
lumbago, although why back pain was considered comical, I'm
damned if I know.

Unable to play on July 13, Gehrig nonetheless tried. He didn't
have to bat in the top of the first inning, and he had no
problem in the field in the bottom of that inning. In the top of
the second he hit a single, but he had to leave the game in the
bottom of the inning because of the pain. The next day he was
still suffering, and the Yankees presented a starting lineup
that had him ostensibly playing shortstop and leading off. He
hit a single and was immediately removed for a pinch runner, who
stayed in the game at shortstop.

No one made a fuss over the charade. Gehrig had already broken
Everett Scott's record of 1,307 consecutive games, and only one
other player (Joe Sewell, whose streak of 1,103 games ended in
1930) had appeared in as many as 1,000 straight. Keeping the
streak going any way Gehrig could seemed to be a legitimate and
even admirable ploy.

Ripken's consecutive-game streak is thus a purer achievement--as
a streak. What made Gehrig's so special was that during most of
it he was the best player in the game, or very close to the
best. In his peak seasons, from 1927 to 1937, Gehrig was first
or second in the American League in RBIs nine times, and he was
third or fourth the other two years. He was first or second in
home runs seven times and third or fourth the other four years.
In all 11 seasons he was first, second or third in either runs
scored, slugging average or total bases. He finished first,
second or third in batting average seven times.

He accomplished all of that against a field of rivals that over
the years included Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Al
Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Goose Goslin, Hal Trosky, Charlie
Gehringer, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Cronin, Luke Appling, Bill Dickey,
Earl Averill, Heinie Manush, Rudy York and Joe DiMaggio. Gehrig
was extraordinary.

The end of his streak was not abrupt, but it came as a surprise.
Gehrig was only 34 when he began his last full season, in 1938,
but he played far below his standard, whereas Ripken, 34 at the
start of this season, is still at the top of his game. For the
first time in more than a decade Gehrig was not close to the
league leaders in any hitting category. His batting average
dropped more than 50 points, and his strikeouts rose ominously.
His power fell off. In the World Series he had only four hits,
all singles, and he failed to drive in a run.

The illness that destroyed Gehrig was shockingly obvious in the
spring of 1939, although the sportswriters were reluctant to
report it. Eight games into the season, weak, faltering and
batting only .143, Gehrig went to Yankee manager Joe McCarthy
and asked to be taken out of the lineup. That was in Detroit,
where the Yankees were playing the Tigers. Art Hill, who was a
student at Michigan at the time, described the moment in his
1980 book, I Don't Care If I Never Come Back:

"On the second day of May in 1939, I skipped an afternoon class
and, together with a friend who also held baseball in higher
esteem than Geology 12, hitchhiked from Ann Arbor in to
Detroit to see the Tigers play the Yankees. I don't know how
many people were in the stands, but there couldn't have been
much of a crowd because we had no trouble getting good seats....
I stared at my scorecard mechanically as the park announcer ran
down the Yankee lineup, but I was counting, and when he got to
the seventh man I turned to my friend and said, 'Jesus, they've
got Gehrig batting eighth!'...No sooner had I spoken than the
announcer intoned the fateful words: '[Babe] Dahlgren, first
base.'

"And then we knew. After 2,130 consecutive games, Lou Gehrig's
streak was ending. Having already wasted my profanity on the far
less shocking event I had thought I was about to see, I said
nothing. Jim and I just looked at each other in wonder.

"A few moments later, Lou Gehrig emerged from the dugout to
carry the lineup card up to home plate. The disease that would
kill him two years later (but about which we then knew nothing)
had already begun to cripple him, because I clearly remember
that he walked slowly and rather stiffly toward the waiting
group of umpires.

"The fans stood up and applauded for what seemed like a long
time."

B/W PHOTO: UPI/BETTMANN Gehrig's streak topped out at 2,130 when he sat out a Tiger game in May '39. [Lou Gehrig]B/W PHOTO: UPI/BETTMANN In '29, Ruth and Gehrig were larger than life and manager Miller Huggins. [Babe Ruth, Miller Huggins, and Lou Gehrig]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)