It took disease to stop Gehrig when pain couldn't

September 07, 1995|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Sun Staff Writer

The bookshelf is one place to visit for the story of Lou Gehrig's remarkable record of 2,130 consecutive games.

Another is the living room of Bill Werber.

Werber, 87, is among a handful of men who were teammates of Gehrig and who are alive to reminisce about it. In 1930 and 1933, Werber was a young infielder for the New York Yankees playing in the long shadow of such legends as Gehrig and Babe Ruth.

By the time Werber joined the Yankees, Gehrig's streak had reached several hundred games. Werber soon discovered how it had happened. Gehrig refused to acknowledge pain.

In 1930, Gehrig continued playing after breaking the middle finger on his glove hand.

Every throw stung, Werber recalled, and every at-bat was an improvisation.

"He'd hit with part of his hand literally off the bat," Werber said. "Don't ask me how."

In 1933, Gehrig was badly spiked on a play at first base, a cut that sliced through his shoe and mangled his foot. "He hurt terribly," Werber recalled.

But he played on and on.

Gehrig's streak had a place in baseball's record books for 56 years. Now that it has been erased, it's getting even more attention. It will be that way for Cal Ripken when his streak is on the endangered list in another six decades.

The essential facts of the Gehrig record are well-known. He compiled his mark over a 14-year span, from June 1925 until May 1939. He had hoped to play on a few more years. But his skills rapidly deteriorated. After taking himself out of the lineup, he checked into the Mayo Clinic. The grim diagnosis was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable disease that killed him in little more than two years.

As often as Gehrig's story has been told, however, nuances about his career sometimes are overlooked.

For instance, the remarkable streak required more of Gehrig than a penchant for indestructibility. To reach 2,130, he also had to be highly practical and sometimes even slightly egotistical.

The practical side showed in Gehrig's willingness, particularly late in his career, to leave ballgames before the end. During his streak, he was replaced more than 60 times, including eight early exits in 1937 and 1938.

Gehrig and Ripken were very much alike in their public comments about the streak. Like Ripken, Gehrig was renowned for insisting that personal goals shouldn't get in the way of the more important business of the team.

But with his streak in jeopardy, Gehrig sometimes compromised. In the few cases when an injury threatened to keep him out of the Yankees' lineup, he pushed his own interests, lobbying to enter games for token appearances. The record shows he never even played in the field in Game 1,426.

Still, there was nothing phony about Gehrig's talent for shaking off what, for other players, would have been devastating physical problems.

During the streak, his injuries included a chronically sore back, bone chips in his left (throwing) elbow, a broken toe and a severely torn muscle in his right leg. He also fractured the little finger on his right hand four times, and was hit in the head three times.

Only a few particularly painful injuries seemed to get the best of him. Most, if possible, seemed actually to spur him to his best games.

In that way, 1934 was a typical and remarkable year. That season, Gehrig won the Triple Crown, batting .363 with 49 home runs and 165 RBIs. For most of the season, he played on one foot and with an enormous headache.

Early in the year, Gehrig damaged his right foot. X-rays revealed a chipped bone on his big toe, an injury Gehrig was advised might take a month to heal properly.

Gehrig dismissed the idea and, the next day, had one of his best days at the plate: a home run, two doubles and a single in five at-bats.

Perhaps the most written-about date in Gehrig's career is June 29, 1934. On that date, the Yankees were in Norfolk, Va., to play an exhibition against one of their minor-league teams.

A young pitcher, Ray White, let loose with a fastball that caught Gehrig on the crown of the baseball cap. The force of the beaning sent the ball bouncing high into the air. Gehrig crumpled and lay unconscious in the batter's box for five minutes.

The Yankees feared Gehrig's skull was fractured. It wasn't, but he had suffered a concussion and had a large bump on his head.

Two days later, when the Yankees played again, Gehrig had four hits, including three triples.

Performances such as those won Gehrig the respect of teammates, and once moved Joe McCarthy to observe: "Since I have been the manager of the Yanks, the one player on whom I have depended most and who has let me down the least is Gehrig."

Gehrig usually shrugged off the praise, saying he only was doing what the Yankees were paying him to do.

"When the day comes that I won't do myself or the club any good by playing, I'll take the day off and let the record go," he said when the streak stood at 1,808 games.

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