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It took disease to stop Gehrig when pain couldn't

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

But it took more than Gehrig's high pain threshold to keep the streak alive. It took luck and, over the years, the full cooperation of a Yankees front office that, in ways seldom talked about during the 1920s and 1930s, watched over the streak.

Sometimes, the assist came in the clubhouse, where McCarthy was a staunch ally of Gehrig's. The manager was willing to massage his lineup card for the benefit of his star first baseman, and he did so often.

During the streak, for instance, Gehrig received many short breaks. He was lifted for a pinch hitter eight times, lifted for a pinch runner four times and replaced at first base 64 times, according to Ray Gonzalez, a baseball historian who has researched Gehrig's career extensively.

At times, Gehrig and McCarthy seemed to be penciling in the Yankees' lineup together, with the fate of the streak foremost on their minds.

A notable example occurred in 1934. Gehrig suffered with a bad back for years and, with the Yankees in Detroit in mid-July, he suffered an especially severe attack.

On July 13, Gehrig singled against Tigers pitcher Tommy Bridges. But as he rounded first, he grabbed his back and had to be assisted from the field.

Gehrig wasn't feeling much better the next day. But rather than concede the streak, he asked McCarthy to juggle the lineup so he could appear briefly. Once he had preserved the streak, Gehrig told McCarthy, he would leave the game.

McCarthy complied, coming up with a weird lineup in which Gehrig batted leadoff -- normally, he was the cleanup hitter -- and was listed as the Yankees' shortstop. After Gehrig came to bat in the first inning -- and managed a single -- McCarthy lifted the injured slugger for a pinch runner without his having played the field.

The next day, Gehrig was 4-for-4 with three doubles.

When needed, Yankees general manager Ed Barrow also could be counted on to back Gehrig. He never said so publicly, but Barrow long has been suspected, by Gehrig biographers and others, of having conveniently postponed Yankees games when Gehrig was on the mend.

In "Iron Horse," a 1990 biography of Gehrig, author Ray Robinson writes, "Barrow was reported to have actually called off a ballgame in the '30s on the pretext of rain so that an ailing Lou could have another day of rest. It is said there wasn't a cloud in the sky when Barrow issued his ruling."

Anecdotes such as these, Robinson says, suggest that decisions about the streak might have been out of Gehrig's hands.

"The streak was important to the Yankees and to [owner] Jake Ruppert," Robinson said in a recent interview. "If Gehrig wanted to go on, others certainly were voicing the same notion."

Not that everybody was behind Gehrig.

Though news coverage during Gehrig's era often was superficial and slanted for hometown teams, papers sometimes took a harder look. In a 1938 article, a New York paper intimated that Gehrig's one-at-bat game in 1934 had diminished the streak.

The article said: "The record is scorned by some as false, a streak kept intact by juggled lineups which enabled Gehrig to play when otherwise he would have been forced to the bench."

Babe Ruth, Gehrig's Yankees teammate for 10 full seasons, also was critical. But rather than attack the streak's validity, Ruth pointed out that Gehrig's insistence on playing every day ultimately would hurt the Yankees and Gehrig himself.

"He's already cut three years off his playing career, and the next two will tell what's going to happen," said Ruth, who never saw the harm in taking off a day or two. "They're not going to pay him off on how many games he has played in a row. And when his legs go, they'll go in a hurry."

Gehrig brushed off the critics.

"I can't see why anyone should attack my record," he said, clearly meaning Ruth. "I intend to play every day possible and continue to give my best to my employers and the fans."

Aside from this 57-year-old quote and others pulled from old newspapers, there is little that speaks to what the streak meant to Gehrig.

He didn't live long enough to leave a record. The last two years of his life were spent mostly in seclusion, fighting his disease.

His wife, Eleanor, never remarried. Her autobiography, "My Luke and I," devotes only three pages to the streak. She died in 1984 without children or surviving relatives to pass down the Gehrig story.

Werber, one of a few surviving ballplayers to have known Gehrig, recalls that his famous teammate didn't talk much about the TTC streak, or anything else. He says Gehrig was "highly respected" by fellow Yankees, but "aloof."

"If you put it to a vote, he wouldn't have been the most popular fellow at the ballpark," said Werber, who lived in Maryland for many years before retiring to Florida.

Tommy Henrich, 82, was closer to Gehrig, but did not recall ever discussing the streak with him. Gehrig had passed Everett Scott's mark of 1,307 games in 1933. By the time Henrich joined the Yankees four years later, Henrich noted, the novelty of the record had all but worn off.

"There was always the idea, 'How far will [Gehrig] go?' " said Henrich, who lives in Arizona. "But it didn't compare to what Ripken has gone through."

Gehrig's fascination with the streak plainly grew during those latter years. But early on, there are conflicting accounts of how much attention he might have paid.

In his 1942 book, "A Quiet Hero," author Frank Graham, a newspaper man who covered Gehrig's career from the beginning, wrote that Gehrig was totally unaware of his streak for the first eight years.

Then, on the Fourth of July in 1933, Gehrig was having breakfast with Dan Daniel, veteran baseball writer for the New York World Telegram. Graham wrote that Daniel was the first to realize that the consecutive-games record was within Gehrig's reach.

The book replays the conversation between the writer and Gehrig:

" 'Do you know how many games you have played in a row?'

"Lou shook his head.

" 'Roughly, it's about 1,250. And do you realize that Scotty's record is only 1,307 -- and that you will break that record before the season is over?'

"Lou was amazed.

" 'Gosh,' he said, 'You might be right. Why, I never thought of that. I had no idea.' "

Robinson, in his 5-year-old biography of Gehrig, repeats the anecdote. The author said the story was told to him by Daniel himself, who died in 1981.

In fact, the streak was widely reported years earlier.

In Cooperstown, N.Y., the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library maintains perhaps the most extensive collection of writings about Gehrig, including files thick with yellowed newspaper clippings about the streak.

Among the articles is one dated May 29, 1929, that briefly notes Gehrig's streak, then at 603 consecutive games. Other articles -- all appearing before Gehrig's breakfast with Daniel -- mention the streak at 888, 1,000, 1,103 and 1,197 consecutive games.

Gehrig isn't quoted in any of the articles, leaving open the possibility that he didn't read any of them.

But like many things about the Gehrig streak, it's anybody's guess.

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