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‘Iron Horse’ the Original Man of Steel : Baseball: Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played ended 56 years ago. Ripken poised to tie it with 2,130th game in a row.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baseball’s consecutive-games record, the one Cal Ripken will tie today, came to an end 56 years ago in the lobby of Detroit’s Book-Cadillac Hotel.

In May of 1939:

--President Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the grand opening of the New York World’s Fair, told the country, “America’s wagon is hitched to a star.”

--General Electric was selling refrigerators for $5 down, $5 a month.

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--Judy Garland moved into her new Bel-Air home on 3 1/2 acres. Price: $40,000.

--The big story in Los Angeles was the grand opening of $11-million Union Station.

And in Detroit, on Tuesday morning, May 2, 1939, Henry Louis Gehrig, hitting .143 after the season’s first eight games, waited in the Book-Cadillac lobby to meet Yankee Manager Joe McCarthy, who was returning from an off-day trip to his home in Buffalo, N.Y.

When McCarthy came in, Gehrig asked for a private meeting in the manager’s room.

According to accounts told over the years, including McCarthy’s, the conversation went something like this:

Gehrig: “I’m benching myself, Joe.”

McCarthy: “Why?”

Gehrig: “For the good of the team. Nobody’s had to tell me how bad I’ve been and how much of a drawback I’ve been to the club. I’ve been thinking about it since the season started . . . when I couldn’t start as I hoped I would, that the time has come for me to quit.”

McCarthy: “You don’t have to quit. Take a rest for a week or so, and maybe you’ll feel all right again.”

Gehrig: “I just don’t know. I can’t figure out what’s the matter with me . . .”

And so it was over. The streak, the baseball mark subsequently called by historians for decades “the one record no one will ever break,” was over.

June 1, 1925, to May 2, 1939: 2,130 consecutive games. From the Roaring Twenties to the edge of World War II.

Gehrig was 21 when it started and just shy of 36 at the finish.

Twenty-five months later, he was dead at 37, a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that today is commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

The malady, rare and fatal, is marked by increasing muscular weakness caused by slow destruction of motor neurons.

By 1939, Gehrig’s teammates could see that something was eating away at Gehrig’s athletic skills, long before even he knew what was happening.

It started in the late 1930s, when Gehrig began stumbling and dropping salt shakers, silverware and catsup bottles. His last big season was 1937, when he hit .351 and 37 home runs and drove in 159 runs.

He signed for $39,000 for 1938, when he was already the highest-paid player in baseball.

Then came 1938, and a precipitous drop in performance. The playing streak remained but his batting average dropped to .295 and his home run and RBI counts fell to 29 and 114--a banner season for most but far short of Gehrig’s standards. Gehrig’s lifetime average was .340.

It’s tempting today to look at Gehrig’s last three seasons and pinpoint 1938 as the time when his disease began to erode his skills.

But although his 1938 average represented a drop of almost 60 points, he finished the 1938 season like the Gehrig of earlier years.

He was hitting only .277 in late August but hit .400 over the last month and drove in 23 runs in September.

Despite the late rally, however, some had seen a general decline.

Late in the 1938 season, remembers pitching rival Bob Feller, Gehrig’s decline was clearly visible.

“It wasn’t just his hitting that year, it was his fielding at first base,” Feller told The Times.

“He just wasn’t getting down on ground balls like he used to. I saw that first, then later that he seemed to have trouble navigating his swing.

“Before that, he was a great high-ball hitter. One thing you never wanted to throw Gehrig was a high, inside fastball.

“And you never threw changeups to him--or any other power hitter in those days--because the fences in those parks were so much closer then.

“One game in Yankee Stadium, in 1937, I made the mistake of throwing him a high fastball in the ninth inning of a game [in which] we were tied, and he hit a two-out homer and beat me.

“He didn’t like to swing at curves, so that’s about all he saw from me.”

At spring training in 1939--after Gehrig’s salary had been reduced to $36,000--his decline shocked his teammates.

Besides fumbling easy ground balls and showing a marked loss of running speed, he was hitting batting practice pitches flush . . . and barely getting them to the outfield fences.

This, from a man who had had upper-deck power--he finished his career with 493 home runs, still 15th on the all-time list.

In the first eight games of the 1939 season, having gone four for 28, he removed himself from the lineup in Detroit. McCarthy named Babe Dahlgren to play first.

(Dahlgren, 83, lives in Bradbury but declined to be interviewed for this story.)

That afternoon, with Gehrig on the bench for the first time in 14 years and Dahlgren hitting a home run and a double, New York beat Detroit, 22-2.

Gehrig began the streak in 1925, when on June 1 he pinch-hit for Pee Wee Wanninger. The next day, he started at first base in place of Wally Pipp, who was suffering from one of his frequent migraine headaches.

Pipp never returned to the Yankee lineup. Gehrig, picking up the nickname “the Iron Horse” along the way, played through the rest of the ‘20s and nearly all of the 1930s.

He broke the old consecutive-games record in 1933, when he surpassed Everett Scott’s mark of 1,307.

In an eerie coincidence, Scott, by then a retired Michigan businessman, was in the Book-Cadillac lobby that 1939 afternoon, standing 10 feet away when Gehrig asked to speak privately to McCarthy.

A powerfully built, New York City-reared son of German immigrants, Gehrig set a standard for reliability and toughness that would last for more than half a century.

Broken bones, backaches, flu, pulled hamstrings, headaches, colds . . . he played through everything.

Like Ripken, he didn’t complete every start. But when it was over, Gehrig and the streak were one, and there was an essence of nobility, courage and resolve to it. For a country that was enduring a crushing Depression, Gehrig’s record seemed a uniquely American achievement.

A quiet man who first played in Babe Ruth’s shadow and finished in Joe DiMaggio’s, he bowed out with arguably baseball’s most cherished record.

Writer Ray Robinson, for his 1990 book, “Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time,” broke down Gehrig’s streak game by game.

He found that:

--Gehrig failed to play complete games only 42 times before 1933, on his way to breaking Scott’s streak.

--In a game in May 1926, Gehrig was injured on a pop fly and Babe Ruth finished the game at first base.

--He was ejected by umpires only six times during the streak.

--Gehrig, before his skills began to fade in 1938, underwent an extensive physical exam at Columbia University’s medical school and doctors discovered a clue to the streak--Gehrig had an astonishingly high pain threshold.

X-rays showed that Gehrig had broken every one of his fingers at least once.

Another medical exam, according to Robinson, showed 17 assorted fractures of his hands and fingers, all of which had healed by themselves.

Actually, a broken bone did cause Gehrig to miss a game in 1931, but not an American League game. Not even an American game.

In a 1931 off-season exhibition in Tokyo, a Japanese college pitcher hit Gehrig, breaking a bone in his right hand, causing Gehrig to miss one game on the Japanese tour.

As Gehrig approached his 2,000th consecutive game, his wife, Eleanor, urged him to take a day off after 1,999. That number would be better remembered than any other, she reasoned.

Not everyone applauded Gehrig’s streak.

Babe Ruth, perhaps frustrated at being out of the limelight after his 1935 retirement, had this to say in 1937:

“This Iron Man stuff is just baloney. I think he’s making one of the worst mistakes a ballplayer can make. The guy ought to learn to sit on the bench and rest.

“They’re not going to pay off on how many games he’s played in a row. When his legs go, they’ll go in a hurry.”

After ending his streak, Gehrig remained on the Yankee bench for six weeks, traveling with the team. Robinson was told by teammates years later that they noticed on train trips how Gehrig was having difficulty dealing and gripping cards during bridge games.

He played one more game, three innings of an exhibition in Kansas City, where the Yankees played their farm club, the Blues.

Then Eleanor Gehrig accompanied her husband to the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minn., where she believed it would be found he had a brain tumor.

Mayo doctors, according to Robinson, phoned Eleanor Gehrig shortly after her husband had undergone days of tests and told her the disease would kill him, probably before 1942.

Lou Gehrig died in his sleep at his New York home at 10:10 p.m. on June 2, 1941. With him at the end were Eleanor and her mother, a doctor, and Gehrig’s parents. He was 37.

He was buried at Kensico Cemetery at Valhalla, N.Y.

Eleanor, who died in 1984 at 79, was buried next to him.

In her 1976 autobiography, “My Luke and I,” she wrote, “I had the best of it. I would not have traded two minutes of my life with that man for 40 years with another.”


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