Long shadow: Gehrig's legacy enduring 50-plus years later Cal's 2,000

July 31, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Tommy Henrich lives in Dewey, Ariz., but never attends spring-training games. "I don't know anybody anymore," the former New York Yankee says, laughing. "I think I'd have to pay to get in."

He's 81 now, Old Reliable is. He can tell you more about an obscure player from the 1940s than any current superstar. But, for the past three years, he's been following Cal Ripken.

"I'm very interested in seeing that he's playing good ball," Henrich said. "They're not doing him any favors by leaving him in there. He deserves to be in there."

Indeed, if anyone can appreciate the enormity of Ripken's 2,000th consecutive game tomorrow night, it's a man who was a teammate of Lou Gehrig's.

Henrich joined the Yankees in 1937. He played with the Iron Horse for two full seasons and part of a third before Gehrig was stricken by the disease that came to bear his name.

Now, 5 1/2 decades later, Henrich is one of the few left to tell Gehrig's story. Most of the old Yankees are gone. So is Gehrig's wife, Eleanor. He had no brothers or sisters, no children.

His name will endure because he was one of the all-time great hitters in major-league history. But like Ripken, one of the all-time great shortstops, he's best known for his consecutive-games streak.

That leaves Henrich with mixed emotions.

His heart is with Gehrig.

But he's also rooting for Ripken.

"Because of my past history with the Yankees, Lou Gehrig and all that great tradition, I want that record to stay with Lou Gehrig," Henrich said. "But I'll tell you what, my hat is off to Cal Ripken if he pulls it off.

"Naturally, I want Gehrig to hold onto it like I did with [Babe] Ruth with 60 home runs and 714. But, my heaven's sake, if Cal Ripken can do it, I'll be doggone proud of that guy. He did it the hard way. Beautiful."

Henrich, an outfielder with a .282 lifetime batting average, spent 11 seasons with the Yankees before retiring in 1950. He said he never thought anyone would get this close to Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive games.

Henrich witnessed another of baseball's most enduring records -- Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941. But for the longest time, he thought Gehrig's mark would be more difficult to approach.

"Absolutely, it amazes me," Henrich said. "That a shortstop is doing it -- that's the most amazing thing. There's more activity in that position than any except catcher. He's in danger every doggone day, guys sliding into him, whatever. That's what makes it, to me, all the more remarkable."

Gehrig was a first baseman. He played in a simpler era, an era without night games, artificial turf and cross-country travel. Then again, his streak probably should have lasted longer. His career ended when he was 35. He died on June 2, 1941, at 37.

In 1938, his last full season, he batted .295 with 29 homers and 114 RBIs -- and that was considered an off year. The Yankees saw fit to cut his pay by $4,000 -- from $39,000 to $35,000. There was no players union then.

Gehrig was a .340 lifetime hitter, and averaged 153 RBIs from 1927 to '37. He holds the American League single-season RBI record (184) and ranks third behind Hank Aaron and Ruth on the all-time list.

"He was a plain belter," Henrich said. "He didn't care whether it was a strike or not. If he thought it looked good, he'd swat the ball. On a high pitch, Gehrig didn't raise his bat to the level of the ball, parallel to the ground. He used it like a tomahawk.

"He didn't have any idea where the ball was going to go. All he did was hit the doggone ball hard, and it would take off in whatever direction he wanted it to. I marveled at the super power he had. He was like a butcher with a bat in his hand."

And then, in 1939, everything changed.

"The disease [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] had him from the first day of spring training," Henrich said. "He never improved at all. We didn't know what it was. Nobody had an idea. We thought, 'Well, he'll get better.' But no, he never improved one iota.

"It was incredible. He had no power. He couldn't get out of the way of pitches thrown at him. It was pitiful. The press was going to [manager] Joe McCarthy, saying, 'How long is this going to go on? When are you going to take him out of the lineup?'

VTC "McCarthy said: 'I'm not going to take him out of the lineup. That's going to be Lou's decision.' That's how much respect he had for Gehrig. And that's exactly what happened. Lou finally said: 'I don't know what it is, but I can't continue hurting the ballclub like I am.' "

And so, eight games into the '39 season, it was over. Gehrig was 4-for-28 at the time -- all singles. He had broken Everett Scott's record of 1,307 consecutive games five years before. Few mentioned his streak after that.

"We took it for granted," Henrich said.

At the end, McCarthy told him, "Fellows like you come along once in a hundred years." Little did anyone know that a kid from Aberdeen, Md., would be stalking the legendary Iron Horse a half-century later.

Everyone always wonders, how long will Ripken keep playing if he gets to Gehrig? The answer should be simple. Ripken should stop once he reaches 2,130. It would be a remarkably moving gesture, linking his name and Gehrig's forever.

Everyone is rooting for him now.

Even Gehrig's old teammates.

"Tell Cal, it's OK with me," Tommy Henrich said. "He's earning it."

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