NEW YORK — The end of summer, a chilling breeze swirled through Yankee Stadium and danced across the infield and out into the area by the leftfield bleachers, the area they call Monument Park. Here, fathers walk with sons licking ice cream cones and point at the plaques of the old Yankees players, Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle. “When I was your age,” the fathers say,
“I saw that guy. Now that was a ballplayer.”
It is a place for heroes, for memories, and for ghosts. One of those ghosts actually moved Wednesday night. Sometime after 9 o’clock, unnoticed by fans watching the Yankees play the Mariners, the skies opened with a quiet thunder, and Lou Gehrig, the great Lou Gehrig, the Captain, the Iron Horse, maybe the finest first baseman in the history of the game, took one step backward. And in so doing, he was suddenly out of sync with the words on his plaque, as if someone had tilted his tombstone.
“Lou Gehrig . . . whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time . . . “
All Time just ended.
The Iron Horse steps aside.
What Cal Ripken did Wednesday night, down the coast in Baltimore, breaking the record they said would never be broken, will stand forever as an enormous achievement. It speaks to his work ethic. It speaks to his dedication. It speaks to his endurance through a zillion airplane miles, through injuries, artificial turf, batting slumps and doubleheaders, through hot July afternoons and long September nights when his Orioles were helplessly out of the race and taking a day off would have been oh, so inviting.
It speaks to all that. It shouts “HE DID IT!” to the heavens.
But it does not drown out Gehrig.
What they did was not the same. It’s not fair to compare
On a spring day in 1939, as a war simmered across the ocean, Lou Gehrig put himself on the bench. He ended his streak of 2,130 consecutive games — not because he was told to by his manager, but because he thought he wasn’t helping his team. He had collected only four hits in the first eight games of the season. Never mind that today, that might be enough to get a $500,000 contract. Gehrig had high standards. He wasn’t meeting them.
He sat down.
Gehrig was suffering from a terrible, paralyzing thing called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Some famous men have been stricken by this illness since, including physicist/author Stephen Hawking, who, through the use of special high-tech machinery, wrote a best-seller while living in a wheelchair.
Writing is not the same as playing baseball. And what we now know about the
disease that killed Lou Gehrig — and bears his name — is that it can take years before it cripples you completely. Meanwhile, it can live inside you, slowly staking its claim.
Which might explain a summer night in 1934 — five years before his retirement — when Gehrig collapsed while running the base paths. Just fell to the dirt. Scared everyone. He had similar problems in 1935 and ’38. At the time, doctors blamed lumbago. They had no thought of testing him for ALS. They barely knew what it was.
The truth is, Gehrig might have been hosting his killer even then. If so, it could be that Gehrig’s last months or even years in baseball were played through the pain and fatigue of a crippling disease.
How, then, can anyone compare him and Ripken?
This might be why, in some circles, the idea arose that Ripken should sit himself down Wednesday night, just as Gehrig once sat himself down, so that they would share the record instead of passing it. It’s a sweet idea, but a misguided one. Ripken logged the miles. He should take the wheel.
“I understand what they feel,” Ripken said this week, when asked about tying Gehrig. “We all have our personal memories about baseball and how it makes us feel.”
Good. It’s supposed to make us feel good, right? Always a gentle man
Did you know Lou Gehrig had one more job after baseball? The mayor of New York offered him a spot with the parole board. Gehrig, a shy type, thought he wasn’t qualified, so he asked for time, three months, to think it over. He took home books, he read about psychology, he visited prisons and talked to workers.
On the day after New Year’s, 1940, the next-to-last year of his life, Lou Gehrig became a parole officer at an annual salary of $5,700, which was peanuts compared to what he had earned in baseball.
“This is the luckiest thing that ever happened to me,” Gehrig said then. Lucky? To be a parole officer?
Different time, different rules. Cal Ripken will not be taking any civil-service jobs next year. He is an American icon this morning, bound for endorsements, TV shows, corporate speaking engagements. His health is good. If all goes as planned, he’ll take his grandsons to Cooperstown in a limo one day.
So while Ripken and Gehrig are both credits to their sport, they are not the same. And so be it. The opening words of the inscription on Gehrig’s plaque at Yankee Stadium read like this: “A man, a gentleman, and a great baseball player.”
In his last gentlemanly act, the Iron Horse held the door open and stepped aside, into the background, quietly as usual. Then a batter crouched, a pitcher delivered, and the game of baseball continued on, sprinkling noise into the late summer night.