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Remembering When They Unhitched The Iron Horse of the Yankees

August 25, 1995

``You heard of the Wonderful Iron Horse Lou,

``Who looked as if he would never be through,

``For 14 years as good as new,

``And then of a sudden, he _ ah, it’s true!″

_ Willard Mullin, New York Journal-American.



AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) _ On the last day of April in 1939, 601,484 went through the turnstiles during opening of the World’s Fair in New York as President Roosevelt opened the exhibition.

Across town, just 23,712 were at Yankee Stadium as the Washington Senators beat New York, 3-2. Lou Gehrig went 0-for-4, dropping his average to .143. No one, not even Gehrig, knew it would be his final game.

The Yankees were off the following day, gathering at Grand Central Terminal on Monday evening for the train ride to Detroit. While Gehrig had started the season just 4-for-28, the talk around the team was of Joe DiMaggio. The 24-year-old outfielder had torn muscles in his right ankle during Saturday’s game and was taken, in a wheelchair, from his apartment in the Hotel New Yorker to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington Heights, near the site of the Yankees’ original ballpark.

Despite Gehrig’s slump, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy didn’t expect Gehrig to take himself out of the lineup Tuesday. McCarthy flew to Detroit from Buffalo and came across Gehrig in the lobby of the Book Cadillac Hotel.

``Joe, I’d like to talk to you,″ Gehrig said, according to Arthur E. Patterson’s account in the New York Herald Tribune.

``Sure thing, Lou. C’mon around the corner here and sit down,″ McCarthy replied.

``Joe, I’m not helping this team any,″ Gehrig said. ``I know I look terrible out there. This string of mine doesn’t mean a thing to me. It isn’t fair to the boys for me to stay in there. Joe, I want you to take me out of the lineup today.″


``Gehrig was not like the common folk;

``Created, was he, like the strongest oak;

``Seemed nothing could crack on this hardy bloke!

``No flaw to be found, no use to try

``With hand as good and sure as his eye,

``His arm was just as strong as his knee;

``His back and shoulders enough for three;

``And his legs the best you ever did see.″


Gehrig’s streak had begun on June 1, 1925, when he pinch hit for shortstop Pee-Wee Wanniger. Gehrig replaced Wally Pipp at first the following day and went on to smash Everett Scott’s record of 1,307 consecutive games played, a streak that ended in 1924.

Gehrig wound up with a career average of .340, 493 homers and 1,976 RBIs. He still holds the major league records for most consecutive seasons playing all of his team’s games (13), career grand slams (23), seasons with 400 total bases (5), and the American League records for RBIs in a season (184) and seasons scoring 100 or more runs (13).

Gehrig’s average had dropped to .295 in 1938 from .354 the previous season. In a July 1938 issue of The Sporting News, Dan Daniel wrote: ``Gehrig has been in a long and seemingly hopeless slump ... We hope he can rally. But he just can’t keep going consistently once he does right himself. It is my conviction that Gehrig is a very tired man.″

Gehrig had tears in his eyes when he took the lineup card out with Babe Dahlgren’s name on it at first base. At 2,130, the streak had come to an end.

``The signs of his approaching fadeout were unmistakable this spring at St. Petersburg, Fla.,″ James F. Dawson wrote in The New York Times.

``I decided last Sunday night on this move,″ Gehrig said that day. ``I haven’t been a bit of good to the team since the season started. It would not be fair to the boys, to Joe or to the baseball public for me to try going on. In fact, it would not be fair to myself, and I’m the last consideration.

``It’s tough to see your mates on base, have a chance to win a ballgame and not be able to do anything about it. McCarthy has been swell about it all the time. He’d let me go until the cows came home, he is that considerate of my feelings, but I knew in Sunday’s game that I should get out of there.

``I went up there four times with men on base. Once there were two there. A hit would have won the ballgame for the Yankees, but I missed, leaving five stranded, and the Yankees lost. Maybe a rest will do me some good. Maybe it won’t. Who knows? Who can tell? I’m just hoping.″


``A thousand ballgames passed and found

``Gehrig at first base strong and sound.

``Fifteen hundred came and went;

``Eighteen hundred and still unbent.

``And then the two thousand twenty-first game

``Playing as usual, much the same.

``His body was sturdy _ just like the start;

``His lungs were still as strong as his heart,

``He was sound all over as any part, _

``And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt

``In one more game he will be worn out.″


It wasn’t known yet that Gehrig was suffering from amytrophic lateral sclerosis, would never play in another major league game, and would die on June 2, 1941.

By July 4, 1939, two months after he came out of the lineup, Gehrig’s illness had been diagnosed and he was honored at Yankee Stadium with Lou Gehrig Day.

``Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,″ he said in his famous speech, which is still replayed.

At first, Gehrig’s 1938 slump was attributed to lumbago, then to a gall bladder condition.

``I just can’t understand,″ Gehrig said the day after the streak ended. ``I am not sick. The stomach complaint which was revealed last year in three separate examinations I underwent has been cleared up by observance of a strict diet. My eye is sharp, yet I was not swinging as of old. I reduced the weight of my bat from 36 to 33 ounces, thinking a change might work to my advantage, but it didn’t. I went back to the 36 and it was the same.″

Teammates thought Gehrig would be back quickly.

``They told me he was slumping when I first joined the club, but he’s still here,″ DiMaggio said from his hospital bed. ``He never was a spring hitter in my time with the club. I think he’ll come around in this warm weather. It’s a funny game. The breaks count a lot. Now, if Lou had held off another day, he might have got himself a couple of hits in that game. It’s almost a cinch that with the Yankees winning by 22 to 2 that he would have done something, and it might have pulled himself out of that slump.″

DiMaggio, who also would play until he was 36, was amazed at Gehrig’s feats.

``Whatever Lou does in the future doesn’t count,″ Joe D. said. ``He has had 14 great seasons _ and I mean great. If I could have only 10 of them, I’d be satisfied. Here’s a fellow who has lasted ’til he’s 36, and only this morning I was wondering _ and me 24 _ how long I’ll last. Say, if I could go 10 more years, ’til I’m 34, I’d be glad to call it a career.″

When Gehrig came out of the lineup, it was front-page news in the afternoon papers, alongside stories of Adolf Hitler offering a non-aggression pact to Scandinavian and Baltic countries.

Columnists immediately filled their stories with praise.

``Gifted with no flair whatever for the spectacular, except as it might be produced by the solid crash of bat against ball at some tense moment, lost in the honey days of a ballplayer’s career in the white glare of the great spotlight that followed Babe Ruth, he nevertheless more than packed his share of the load,″ Bill Corum wrote in the Journal-American.

``So they unhitched the Iron Horse from the old wagon, but Marse Joe McCarthy didn’t order him to be taken behind the barn and destroyed,″ John Kieran wrote in The New York Times.

Even back then, they weren’t so sure the consecutive games record would last forever. But they thought it would last a long time.

``Mighty few major league ballplayers are going to play in 2,130 baseball games without missing one,″ Corum wrote.

``But his greatest record doesn’t show in the book,″ Kieran wrote. ``It was the absolute reliability of Henry Louis Gehrig. He could be counted upon. He was there every day at the ballpark bending his back and ready to break his neck to win for his side. He was there day after day and year after year. He never sulked or whined or went into a pot or a huff. He was the answer to a manager’s dream.″


``The second of May, Thirty-Nine!

``McCarthy was naming his men down the line _

``And what to you think the people found?

``Dahlgren on first to the right of the mound!

``And off in the dugout with head going round

``Was the man who had played himself into the ground.

``You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce

``How he went to pieces all at once _

``All at once, and nothing first _

``Just as bubbles do when they burst.

``End of the wonderful Iron Horse Lou.

``Flesh is flesh _ and Lou is through.″

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