Gehrig fan's wish was to see Ripken break record

September 03, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Chuck Burke spent the final 56 years of his life remembering the last time he saw Lou Gehrig. It was the spring of 1939, two days before a dying Gehrig pulled himself out of the New York Yankees lineup.

"Struck out three times," Burke would tell people, with a touch of wistfulness in his voice. "He fell down at the plate. He couldn't hold the bat. My brother turned to me and said, 'There must be something wrong with Lou.' "

In the spring of 1995, Burke made new plans. Come September, he said, if he could find a ticket, he wanted to witness the final chapter of Lou Gehrig's legend, when Cal Ripken would break Gehrig's consecutive-game streak. Ripken has dignity, he said. The kind of dignity Lou Gehrig brought to the game. He wanted to see one piece of history passing another.

He said this in a television interview on Opening Day, and a TV reporter said, "Those tickets will probably go for $1,000."

"Out of my league," said Burke.

In Worton on the Eastern Shore, a lady named Edie Stevens watched the TV interview and said to herself, "I want to get this man to the ballpark."

She has four season tickets. She reached Burke, who was a resident at the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville. She asked him to be her guest in September, on the day Baltimore's Iron Man would pass New York's Iron Horse.

Burke was thrilled. He was 86, and he'd had cancer, but the cancer had been in remission. In February, he went to the Babe Ruth Museum, a block from Camden Yards, and reminisced about the old days. He recalled the times he'd watched Gehrig play in Washington's old Griffith Stadium, and the afternoon he waited for autographs for two hours after a ballgame, and here came Babe Ruth himself, happily reaching out to embrace the kids who were there so many years ago.

"We went down to the museum on the Babe's birthday last winter, and Chuck was talking about the old days," recalled Mel Tansill, public affairs director for Charlestown. "He was a great, great fan. And he became, like, the spirit of the old timers. He'd lived through those days. And there was a group of school kids, and I told them Chuck had met the Babe. The kids all ran to him, and he told them wonderful stories."

Burke made plans for September. He told everyone about this lovely lady, Edie Stevens, who was taking him to the big game. They'd become pretty good friends. But, in July, Chuck Burke died. Tansill called Stevens to break the bad news, and then he got a phone call, from Baltimorean Bob Hieronymus, who's a student of the old Negro League.

Hieronymus mentioned Geraldine Day, the widow of recent Hall of Fame inductee Leon Day. She would love to go to the big Ripken game, Hieronymus said, but she doesn't have a ticket. Mel Tansill called Edie Stevens. Wouldn't this be a great tribute, he said: to Leon Day and Lou Gehrig, who played for the love of the game, and to Chuck Burke's memory, as well. Stevens thought it would be wonderful, and said she would love Geraldine Day to accompany her.

But the story takes a turn. Orioles owner Peter Angelos got wind of it. Edie Stevens' seats are somewhere in the upper deck. Not good enough, said Angelos. He offered four tickets, in the third row behind home plate, for the two women and for Stevens' husband and grandson. And her upper deck tickets? Burke's four sons will get to use them.

On Wednesday, the day Ripken is scheduled to break the record, there will be a celebration at the Charlestown community. A miniature, indoor baseball diamond will be set up, and residents will perform. Lois Butler will do "Casey at the Bat." Lou Verrecchio and Hank Thompson will do the old "Who's on First" comedy routine. The men's chorus will sing "Take Me Out to The Ballgame." Residents will do the wave. Nerf balls will be thrown, and when residents catch them, a voice will announce, "Give that fan a contract."

Among the home's residents is Dorothy Olsen. She was Lou Gehrig's nurse at New York's Presbyterian Hospital as he lay dying more than half a century ago. She'll be there Wednesday, but only for a while. The other night, Mel Tansill got a phone call. It was Olsen, and she was trying to hold back tears of happiness. Peter Angelos heard that she was living in Baltimore, and he was giving her two tickets to the Ripken game.

She's never been to Camden Yards. Now she'll be there to see Cal Ripken run the base paths with the ghost of Lou Gehrig. And Edie Stevens and Geraldine Day will be there, and the spirits of Leon Day and Chuck Burke, as well.

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