As ad man, actor, Gehrig no iron man

September 11, 1995|By PHIL JACKMAN

Last week, during "The Crush" accompanying "The Conclusion" of "The Streak" by Cal Ripken to break Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games played ordeal (let me see, what was that number?), I related a little story about how Gehrig once booted a radio commercial.

On hand today to relate "the rest of the story," as broadcaster Paul Harvey might put it, is Harry G. Gesser, longtime Baltimorean, ex-softball team manager and a man with one terrific memory:

"I believe it [the original story] happened about 1937 or 1938. My father and I were both listening to the broadcast. In those days, most radio programs were 15 minutes in length with but one opportunity at the end for a commercial. Being a kid of 12 or 13 at the time, my memories of most of the event are vague.

"The program consisted mainly of an interview with a sports personality, in this case Gehrig. When the announcer came to the commercial, he asked, 'And now, Lou, what do you like best for breakfast?' Gehrig first answered, 'A big thick steak.' The announcer then asked, 'No, Lou, what cereal do you like best for breakfast?' Gehrig then uttered that immortal word, 'Wheaties.'

"My father and I just looked at each other and howled. Unfortunately, there was no tape at the time to document it. Some years later, about 1960, Lefty Gomez, who was working for Wilson [Sporting Goods] at the time, conducted a sports program for Rudo's in Mondawmin in which he reminisced about his days with the Yankees. He told stories, mostly about himself, with each story being funnier than the last. He was, of course, always known as one of the all-time flakes in baseball as well as a great Hall of Fame pitcher.

"I was fortunate to be there as one of many softball managers who were invited. As I recall, the sponsor was Gunther's Beer, and Herb Carneal, then the voice of the Orioles, was the emcee.

"After the program we were talking with Gomez, and I asked him about the 'Wheaties' incident. He did indeed confirm it and added Lou had received a check for $1,500 from 'Huskies,' a cereal sponsoring the show. Gehrig was so embarrassed, he returned the check. The cereal, however, had received so much publicity it could never have bought for Huskies it returned the check along with an additional check for $1,500. It proves the fallibility of us all."

There's more. Gesser continued:

"In about the same time frame, Gehrig appeared in a 'B' western movie I believe was called 'Rawhide' [other movies since have used the same name]. As kids, we would go to the Saturday matinees for the cowboy movies and serials. In my case it was the Gwynn Theater on Liberty Heights Avenue near Gwynn Oak Avenue and across the street from the 'ritzier' Ambassador. Both were part of the Durkee chain.

"I don't remember the stars or much about the movie itself. Mr. Gehrig couldn't ride or shoot and he had a high squeaky voice. His main contribution was to 'bean' the villain with a cue ball as he rapidly exited the room [bar], which included a pool table.

"Again I sought confirmation from Lefty Gomez who said, 'Yes, I remember it well.' He went on to say the movie had its world premiere in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the Yankees were in spring training. They had a torchlight parade. All the players wore white suits and straw hats. Each carried a kerosene torch and Mr. Gomez said that the kerosene leaked down their arms and ruined their suits.

"I've never seen the movie on TV. Wouldn't it be nice to resurrect it as a further tribute to the original 'Iron Man?' "

As mentioned, Harry Gesser obviously has a memory for the ages. "Rawhide" was indeed a flick put out in 1938 and the review reads: "Famed New York Yankee Lou Gehrig stars in unlikely role of Western rancher suffering at the hands of outlaws. Ballew is a sharp lawyer who rides in to save the day. An intriguing film curiosity, despite amateur performances. C. Smith Ballew, Lou Gehrig, Evelyn Knapp. Director: Ray Tayloe."

It must have been a pretty good show, because it gets 2 1/2 stars in the 1996 "Blockbuster Video Guide to Movies and Videos." Evelyn Knapp appeared in 13 movies, including, "Fireman Save My Child," "Madame Rackateer," "Mistaken Identity," "River's End" and "Smart Money."

Lou Gehrig made just the one movie, which should make it fairly easy for Cal to tie and eclipse the mark. He better learn to ride a horse and holster a firearm, though.

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