Saturday, May 2, 2009

This Day in Yankee History (Lou Gehrig’s Consecutive-Game Streak Ends)

May 2, 1939— Leaving the Book-Cadillac Hotel for their game with the Detroit Tigers, the New York Yankees encountered in the lobby a Grand Rapids, Mich. businessman who happened to be an old teammate: Wally Pipp.

A couple of hours later, the man who took Pipp’s place in the lineup and never left, Lou Gehrig, walked out to the umpire with the team lineup card. The stadium announcer informed the 11,400 fans in attendance that the Yankee captain would not play that day.

The crowd responded with a two-minute ovation for a hero who had, in the prior World Series and all through spring training and the first month of the season, inexplicably struggled to maintain the record of power and consistency he’d established through an extraordinary 2,130-game playing streak.

Later, in the clubhouse, the exhausted Yankee trudged over to a water fountain and wept. When he returned to face a horde of reporters who’d grown increasingly critical of his play in the last few weeks, he was his normal gracious, composed—but now, nonplussed—self. “I just can’t understand,” Gehrig said. “I’m not sick.”

Little did he know that he was. Within six weeks, the entire sports world would be rocked by the news that Gehrig’s physique had been catastrophically drained of its strength through a mysterious neuromuscular disease. Within another two years, that same disease would claim the life of this greatest of home-run heroes and gentlemen.

It was Gehrig’s misfortune to be overshadowed for all but one of his seasons by two more charismatic teammates—first, by a manchild who became the most prodigious home run hitter in the history of the game, then by the first five-tool (i.e., a player who could hit for power, hit for average, run, throw, and field) superstar.

The consecutive-game streak, however, was one that neither Babe Ruth nor Joe DiMaggio, for all their undisputed greatness, could reach, and as time went on Gehrig battled to maintain the streak with grim determination. Few outside the Yankee dugout could imagine the toll that record took on his body: a broken thumb, broken toe, back spasms, and 17 different fractures.

Two of the finer recent chroniclers of Gehrig, Richard J. Tofel (A Legend in the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939) and Jonathan Eig (Luckiest Man) have expressed some surprise that, throughout his life, such an accomplished hitter was, in Tofel’s words, “limited as a person”—i.e., “shy, sensitive, insecure, none too bright, and all too earnest.”

Maybe the decision to cast taciturn Gary Cooper as the doomed hero in Pride of the Yankees colored the authors’ initial impressions of what Gehrig was like—and magnified their shock upon discovering when he wasn’t the stoic, Hemingway-style hero Coop played in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Yet insecurity is hardly unique to high-achieving athletes, even now. In Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, Buster Olney reveals how Paul O’Neill, even at the height of his career, would stalk off the field after failing to get on base, muttering, in all seriousness, “I’ll never get another hit, I can’t hit anymore.”

Gehrig’s need to prove himself stemmed from a similar drive to meet his own standards—but plus a whole lot more:

* As the only surviving son of four children—and as a counterbalance to an often drunken, improvident father—Gehrig was the repository of all the hopes of his doting mother.

* As the son of German immigrants, he was an adolescent at a time—World War I—when war fever had whipped up national resentment against those of his heritage.

* At Columbia University, he not only wondered about his ability to survive academically, but also felt socially inferior to fellow fraternity brothers who did not have to work their way through school.

The insecurity created by his background spurred Gehrig to a record that, even with his truncated career, puts him on the short list of baseball’s greatest all-time hitters: a Triple Crown, the career leader in grand slams, nearly 200 hits and 100 walks in the same season seven times—the list goes on and on.

But, if achievement put him in the record books, character made Gehrig an American legend. I will discuss his “Luckiest Man” speech in the first Old-Timers’ Game later this year. But for now, I’d like to focus on a less well-known aspect of his life—his post-baseball appointment by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to the Municipal Parole Commission.

Gehrig took this responsibility seriously, and, while his fragile health permitted, visited facilities to interview at-risk youths. One such involved a meeting of one sports legend whose story would be adapted by Hollywood with a future one who’d have the same experience.

The meeting with 19-year-old Thomas Rocco Barbella, was ironic, for a start, in that one of Gehrig’s few vices was a penchant for chewing gum, while Barbella’s first contact with the long arm of the law came when he tried to tamper with a gum machine. Things quickly got more serious after that. By the time he met Gehrig, Barbella was stealing anything not nailed down, including equipment from Yankee Stadium.

In 1940, arrested while on probation for statutory rape, Barbella was brought before Gehrig. The young tough heeded some advice from friends and told the new parole commissioner that his favorite sport was baseball. Gehrig grinned, perhaps recognizing that the youngster, who’d already shown skill in boxing, was pulling a fast one.

After asking if he realized all the trouble he’d given his mother (an especially important concern, as we’ve seen, for the slugger), Gehrig told the young man that he’d have to go to reform school. Barbella didn’t take too kindly to this, cursing the Yankee out before being led away by guards.

Years later, however, after reform school had given him the opportunity to get away from his old associates and practice his boxing skills, Barbella said he would have shaken Gehrig’s hand for straightening him out—but by that time the slugger had died.

Eventually, Barbella entered the professional boxing ranks and became a champion. Hollywood made a movie of his life called Somebody Up There Likes Me, starring Paul Newman. When he died, boxing fans knew him by another name—Rocky Graziano—but believed he possessed the same quality in the ring that his old parole commissioner had in facing death: as a eulogist for Graziano put it, “all the guts in the world.”

1 comment:

bjn2727 said...

Great post Mike!
Is Wally Pipp the reason we have the saying, "You are a real Pipp." (Something my Mother would call me quite often!)