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Gehrig's Streak

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, itís 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.

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You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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