So, Cal, you wanted to know more about Lou Gehrig?

John Steadman

November 29, 1991|By John Steadman

Now the destiny that links Cal Ripken Jr. and the man he is pursuing in the record book, Lou Gehrig, is being perceived on more of a personal basis. But Ripken quickly admits to knowing little about Gehrig, who set the standard for longevity by playing 2,130 consecutive games.

Ripken is at 1,573 and counting. It's second highest in the annals of major-league baseball as he mounts the strongest challenge yet to what was considered an unapproachable goal. "All I can tell you is what I remember as a kid when I watched the movie of Gehrig's life on television," says the Baltimore Orioles shortstop.

So Cal, here's a brief primer, a quick introduction, to the New York Yankees first baseman. More will come later because, before your career is over, you'll have a kinship to Gehrig. It's a name you may get tired of hearing. What was Lou like, you ask?

What was Lou like, you ask? For the most part, quiet and unassuming but, being human, not perfect. There were times he was aloof and bitter toward teammates and sports writers, once saying a reporter who became ill should have been given "rat poison." He smoked cigarettes and a pipe, had an occasional glass of beer but was introverted. Remember, too, he was constantly being compared to the most flamboyant of all players, Babe Ruth, and then later to Joe DiMaggio, another superb Yankee.

In the matter of handling money, Lou was extremely frugal, which didn't endear him to waitresses or clubhouse attendants. On the Yankees, he was, most of the time, the exemplary professional but, occasionally, his temper caused him to be ejected from the field for arguments that were too strenuous for the umpires to accept.

The courageous way he fought the spinal illness that ended his career in 1939 and, two years later, his life was nothing short of remarkable and remains as a perpetual testimonial to the quality of the individual.

While at Columbia University, he signed a professional contract but played under an alias, "Lou Lewis," for part of one season at Hartford in the Eastern League. He was beaned three times during his career and one of them came close to terminating the extraordinary streak. It was 1934 and the Yankees had an off-day while waiting to play the Senators in Washington.

All the Yankees went to Norfolk to engage their farm club of the Piedmont League in an exhibition. A pitcher named Ray White, who had been with the Yankees in spring training, was from Columbia and felt disappointed Gehrig didn't try to make him feel welcome. But that wasn't to be. This "old school tie" didn't mean much to Lou, who virtually ignored White.

There was speculation White, to make a point, deliberately threw at Gehrig in the Norfolk game. For background, they had met under similar circumstances that spring, when White was with Newark of the International League. Gehrig slammed him for two home runs and then a pitch from White came precariously close to his head. So much for background.

In the Norfolk encounter, Gehrig greeted White with still another home run. The next time up, a White delivery hit Gehrig squarely in the skull and he went down . . . and out. He was unconscious and later moved to a hospital, where it was believed he'd remain for observation.

But the next afternoon, Gehrig was in the lineup at Griffith Stadium to face the Senators. While getting dressed in the locker room, he found his head was so swollen from the beaning he couldn't wear his own hat. So he tried one of Babe Ruth's larger sizes and that wouldn't fit either. The trainer took a razor blade and slit Ruth's cap, providing more room for Gehrig, because he couldn't play without being in full uniform.

That afternoon, by the fifth inning, Lou had hit three straight triples in the spacious park and was headed for another listing in the record books. But the skies suddenly opened and the rains were torrential. It was necessary to call the game so Gehrig's three triples, the day after he had been knocked unconscious by a pitch, went for naught.

No doubt, Gehrig's personality was smothered by that of the fun-loving, extroverted Ruth and later with the arrival of DiMaggio. Once, while on a trip to Japan with an all-star team, teammate Moe Berg addressed a university student body. He referred to the two greatest players in the game -- naming Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. Then he mentioned Ruth by saying, "he's in a class by himself." It wasn't intended to be a slight but it was.

So Gehrig, called the "Iron Horse" for his ongoing durability, never quite received the adulation his ability merited. Playing those 2,130 straight games set him apart and then, after he died, the movie, "The Pride of the Yankees," (which this reporter, as a child, watched five times in the summer of 1942) made an enormous impression on America.

But with Gehrig, personally and professionally, the streak of consecutive games has been his hallmark. And now Cal Ripken has become the closest player to approach this gallant mark that was pre-supposed to be beyond a challenge, almost sacrosanct.

"The Pride of the Orioles" may not have known much about Gehrig, but before he goes past him he'll have a comprehension that will, no doubt, be more profound than just watching him depicted in a late-night movie.

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