Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The End of Lou Gehrig's Consecutive Games Streak

Lou Gehrig, baseball's "Iron Horse," played in his final baseball game 75 years ago today.

Appropriately, the game was played in Yankee Stadium, and more than 23,000 people were on hand to see it. It was a Sunday afternoon — no one was playing hookey from work or school — and the Yankees were facing the Washington Senators.

Gehrig was hitless in four at–bats, and his batting average fell to .143. He wasn't the only Yankee who struggled that day. New York had only four hits — all singles.

It wasn't as if the Senators had a future Hall of Famer on the mound that day, either. The starting pitcher for Washington was Joe Krakauskas, a 24–year–old southpaw whose major–league career would be over only a few years later.

But no one knew it was Gehrig's final game. He was such a fixture in the lineup that my guess is no one could imagine a Yankee game without him.

I suppose everyone knew he had been playing poorly in spring training and through the first week of major–league play. It was probably the worst–kept secret of all time, and it was perplexing. But few, if any, thought his career would soon be over. They probably figured he would shake it off at some point.

"I have seen ballplayers 'go' overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done," wrote James Kahn in the New York Sun. "But they were simply washed up as ballplayers. It's something deeper than that in this case, though. I have watched him closely and this is what I have seen: I have seen him time a ball perfectly, swing on it as hard as he can, meet it squarely — and drive a soft, looping fly over the infield. ... He is meeting the ball, time after time, and it isn't going anywhere."

The next day, Monday, May 1, 1939, was an off day for the Yankees. On Tuesday, May 2, Gehrig came up to manager Joe McCarthy just before a game in Detroit and announced that he was benching himself — after playing in 2,130 consecutive games — "for the good of the team."

McCarthy went along with Gehrig and inserted Babe Dahlgren in his place in the lineup but told Gehrig the job was still his whenever he was ready. When it was announced to the Detroit fans that Gehrig had removed himself from the lineup after playing in more than 2,100 games, they gave him a standing ovation.

(Dahlgren went two for five with a home run and a double as New York crushed Detroit, 22–2.)

Most folks probably thought Gehrig's absence would only be temporary. Friend and teammate Lefty Gomez said, "It took them 15 years to get [him] out of the game. Sometimes I'm out of there in 15 minutes."

Gehrig's wife, Eleanor, observed, "[The public] had marveled for 13 years at his sublime strength; now they were marveling at his stunning weakness."

A month and a half later, on his 36th birthday, Gehrig was diagnosed with the disease that would kill him two years later — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Bill Dickey, Gehrig's best friend and teammate, said, "I knew there was something seriously wrong with him. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was serious."

On the Fourth of July, an appreciation day was held for Gehrig (who had retired after the diagnosis) at Yankee Stadium. It was on that occasion that he said he was the "luckiest man on the face of the earth."

It came out later that sometimes Gehrig kept the streak going because he made a pinch–hitting appearance or through sheer luck (when an off day happened to coincide with an illness or an injury); other times he played when he probably shouldn't have.

On one occasion, he was hit in the head by a pitch but remained in the game. He was hit in the head on another occasion and was knocked unconscious for five minutes. He left the game but played the next day.

Yet another time, Gehrig was having problems with his back. He singled and was replaced by a pinch runner so he could rest his back.

Moreover, X–rays revealed that he had suffered several fractures during his playing days, but, in his stoic way, he played through the pain.

It probably seemed to most that Gehrig's streak would never be equaled — but Cal Ripken Jr. finally matched Gehrig in September 1995. Ripken played 500 more games before retiring in 1998; his record of 2,632 consecutive games played really might never be matched.

Well, probably not in my lifetime.

Prince Fielder of the Texas Rangers has the closest active streak, and the 29–year–old would need to play every game for the next 13 years to pass Ripken.

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