No one dared suggest Gehrig end his streak When it finally stopped, decision belonged to him

September 28, 1997|By Ray Robinson | Ray Robinson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak rolled along in the Roaring Twenties and into the Depression Thirties, only minor attention was paid to it, nothing like the commotion surrounding the successful challenge by Cal Ripken in recent years. There was relatively little news media heat in those days, and television had not come on the scene.

Gehrig was aware that he had played in "an awful lot of ball games." He also knew that on many of those afternoons he had gone onto the field with broken fingers, stomach aches, backaches, headaches and sore arms.

However, it was a question put to him one afternoon by Dan Daniel, a veteran sportswriter for the New York World Telegram, that led to Gehrig's knowledge that he was approaching the consecutive-games mark of 1,307, set by Everett Scott, a shortstop for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, from 1916 to 1925.

"Do you know how many straight games you've played?" Daniel asked.

"I do know that I started in 1925 and this is 1933, but I don't know any exact figure," the Yankees first baseman replied.

The next day, Daniel informed Gehrig that he had played in 1,250 straight games, 57 away from Scott's record. The subject of Gehrig's durability and commitment had become public property.

Gehrig could not quite fathom why there was any hullabaloo about it. But when his teammate, Babe Ruth, dismissed his devotion by suggesting that "this Iron Man stuff is just a lot of baloney," it did not sit well with Gehrig. After breaking Scott's mark in August 1933, he had become absorbed in his streak.

Gehrig believed that the fans wanted him to continue, that Col. Jacob Ruppert, the Yankees owner, was excited about it and that the writers enjoyed babbling about it. The streak had become such a consuming passion that in 1934, after suffering a fearful beaning in a midseason exhibition, Gehrig insisted on playing the next afternoon against Washington. Despite a knob on his head as big as a coconut, Gehrig hit three straight triples, which were erased from the record book when the game was washed out.

Gehrig never proclaimed that the streak was 100 percent pure or free of any subterfuge. There was speculation that Yankees general manager Ed Barrow actually called off a game one day on the pretext of rain, after he had learned that Gehrig wasn't feeling well. There was not a cloud over Yankee Stadium when Barrow issued his ruling.

On 42 occasions before 1934, Gehrig had failed to play complete games. In 17 of those instances, he was replaced in September games, when the Yankees had already romped off with the pennant or were clearly out of the running. One time Ruth subbed for Gehrig at first base, after Gehrig was injured chasing a pop fly. Another time, when Gehrig woke up with what had been presumed to be an attack of lumbago, he led off the game by singling, then was removed from the lineup. On two other occasions, he was chased from ball games by umpires.

By the time the streak approached 2,000, only Eleanor Gehrig, Lou's wife, had the temerity to suggest that he should rest. In May 1938, with the Red Sox in town, Eleanor told Lou that he should "stop it at 1,999; people will remember it better at that figure."

He balked, telling her, "Colonel Ruppert would never forgive me."

Ultimately, nobody aside from Gehrig could call it quits on the streak. When it became apparent in 1938 and early 1939 that he was slowing down dramatically, not even his manager, Joe McCarthy, dared remove him from the lineup unilaterally. It was only when Gehrig approached McCarthy in a Detroit hotel room on May 2, 1939, and informed him that he was going to bench himself -- after a puny four singles in seven games, as well as shockingly poor play in the field -- that the Iron Horse was wrenched from the lineup.

Gehrig did not know at the time that he would die two years later of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (now popularly renamed Lou Gehrig's Disease). What he did know, most emphatically, was that he was no longer capable of playing up to his high standards. He felt that it was time to leave at 2,130 straight games, the record that Ripken surpassed 56 years later.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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