His strength and durability, from a human perspective, set him apart. Lou Gehrig was synonymous with the Rock of Gibraltar and carried a distinctive name -- "The Iron Horse."
The endurance record of Henry Louis Gehrig, it was presumed, would live for the ages, but he was a mortal after all. Now he has been supplanted by a new hero, who, in truth, achieved much more while in pursuit of Gehrig's longevity standard.
Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. went past the Iron Horse and his mark of 2,130 consecutive games while playing a more demanding position, shortstop as opposed to first base. Ripken also had more complete games; logged a higher total of innings; went coast to coast as a longer schedule decreed; mixed night and day contests; and had far fewer open dates to rest a tired body and soul.
The tragic irony of the Iron Horse saga is Gehrig was knocked out of the lineup at the peak of his career. A serious neuromuscular ailment forced sudden retirement while the season was in progress and then, eventually, took his life. It was said, as the nation mourned his loss, that the streak he created would be a lasting monument.
Yet it eventually became a mistaken impression. Life, even apart from his premature death at the age of 37, was cruel to Gehrig in a manner that other athletes fortunately never had to accept. He grew up a notch above dire poverty. His father was in frequent ill health and unable to work, and his mother earned income by cooking for a college fraternity and taking in wash.
This reporter, through the eyes of a child, saw Gehrig play four times and watched him hit a home run, yet it was a defensive play that has remained a treasured memory for more than half a century.
A ground ball was sharply hit to Gehrig's right, in the hole, but he caught it in his muffin-like mitt. Then the race was on. Instead of making a short toss to the covering pitcher, he dueled the runner in a one-on-one race for the bag.
At the last instant, Gehrig went into a slide, held the ball high in his gloved hand, torch-like, and got the call from the umpire. Odd, isn't it, that a player known for what he could do with a bat in his hands impressed a pre-teen-age boy for the rest of his days by sliding into first base and winning on a close play?
Now, eons later, a table of tape is stretched between Gehrig and Ripken as their abilities and accomplishments are measured. So many similarities exist between the two, it's as if their careers and personalities have become superimposed.
They represent strong, silent types, motivated by inner drive, discipline and sacrifice. In a way, they typify the old nautical truism that empty vessels make the most noise -- as Gehrig and Ripken prefer to allow actions, rather than words, explain the extent of their deeds.
The most striking characteristic, upon seeing the 6-foot,
200-pound Gehrig in uniform, was the size of his calves. They were more immense than some fire hydrants. His lower body had ample bulk, which is why teammates called him "Biscuit Pants."
Ripken is far more athletic in appearance and movement. There wasn't anything natural about Gehrig except the way he generated power before illness shot him down.
In college, he was referred to as the "Babe Ruth of Columbia." A compliment, yet fate would dictate he was continually being compared to Ruth, who hit one place ahead of him in the lineup. He suffered in acclaim because of being measured against the )) flamboyant Ruth, who was synonymous with home run theatrics.
There was little finesse to Gehrig. Rather awkward, he worked to polish his fielding at a time when baseball demanded that first basemen drive in runs by the bushel, as witness the presence of such contemporaries as Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Zeke Bonura and Hal Trosky.
In 1931, Gehrig would have won the home run crown outright, except for a weird circumstance. A teammate on base, Lynn Lary, thought a ball Gehrig hit was caught and, upon reaching third base, left the field for the dugout. Gehrig was called out for passing the runner and credited with a triple.
Instead of having the home run title with 47, he had to share it with -- you guessed it -- Ruth.
As a young boy, we saw Gehrig in Washington and New York and, as with other youngsters, were so awed by his reputation that we later went to see "Pride of the Yankees" five times in various Baltimore movie houses. The cast included Gary Cooper as Gehrig, Teresa Wright as his wife, Eleanor; Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey playing themselves; and Walter Brennan. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, which qualifies it as the best sports film in history.
Gehrig, although introverted, quickly would say he didn't deserve to be canonized. He played at Hartford in the Eastern League in 1921 under an assumed name, Lou Lewis, so as not to jeopardize his amateur standing. That was fudging on the rules.
Two years later, back in Hartford but owned by the Yankees, he was introduced to gin and, although coming off some hard nights, experienced a flurry of success. He believed alcohol was putting him in a relaxed state and, thus, added to his effectiveness.
A caring manager, Pat O'Connor, took him aside and said if he continued to imbibe it could lead to serious problems. Gehrig backed off before it became a habit. He was a light drinker the rest of his career but smoked cigarettes and a pipe.
It was difficult to believe that at the age of 35, he would be through with baseball. His condition was diagnosed June 19, 1939, Gehrig's 36th birthday, and the year baseball was celebrating its centennial anniversary.
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic determined he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that became more generally known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
On June 2, 1941, he died in the arms of his wife at their Larchmont, N.Y., home. He is buried in Valhalla, N.Y., in a different cemetery but only minutes away from where Ruth is interred. Even in death he didn't get a true count, since the headstone marking his grave has him born in 1905. It should read 1903.
Gehrig's record and how he lived brought respect worthy of a deity. A World War II Liberty Ship, carrying his name, was built and christened in Baltimore on Jan. 17, 1943, and in 1989 the postal service issued a stamp in his honor.
The Phi Delta Theta Fraternity, of which Gehrig was a member and where his mother worked, established the Gehrig Award in 1955. It goes to a major-leaguer exemplifying the qualities and playing ability of Gehrig. In 1992, appropriately, the trophy went to Ripken.
Despite being called the Iron Horse, Gehrig sustained countless injuries. He broke every finger on both hands, and X-rays showed he had 17 assorted fractures.
In the decades since his death, royalties from use of the Gehrig name go to enhance two medical foundations. Ripken, meanwhile, offers financial help to those with learning difficulties in Baltimore. The most money Gehrig ever made was $39,000 in 1938, and the next season, the Yankees, unaware he had been stricken, cut his salary $5,000.
Ripken's existing contract with the Orioles is for $6.9 million. A different time, another era, but in their approach to playing the game the similarity is almost singular.
They have a kinship that makes them baseball blood brothers for as long as the game is played.