“Whether your name is (Lou) Gehrig or (Cal) Ripken, (Joe) DiMaggio or (Jackie) Robinson, or that of some youngster who picks up his bat or puts on his glove, you are challenged by the game of baseball to do your very best day in and day out. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do.” Cal Ripken Jr.
Before the Orioles and Yankees began their game tonight the Orioles honored Cal Ripken Jr. on the anniversary of the night in 1995 when he broke the record that most thought would never be broken. On September 6th 1995 Ripken played his 2131st consecutive game, eclipsing the record of the legendary Yankees First Baseman Lou Gehrig. Ripken’s consecutive game streak finally ended and 2632 games on September 20th 1998 when he took himself out before a game against the Yankees.
The record is likely to remain for many years as it would take any current player at least 16 years playing every game of the 162 game season to break it. However records are made to be broken and in 1939 no one thought that anyone would break the record set by baseball’s Iron Horse, the great Lou Gehrig.
On April 30th 1939 Lou Gehrig played his final game after playing in 2130 consecutive games. That day he went hitless against the Washington Senators and was obviously struggling. The team travelled to Detroit to begin a series against the Tigers and on May 2nd the Iron Man benched himself. He had played every day since coming up as a pinch hitter on June 1st 1925 and at the age of 36 Gehrig had still had a respectable year in 1938, even though he felt that something was wrong with him during the last half of the season.
It was a shock to Americans and the baseball world. Gehrig remained with the team but his wife Eleanor contacted Dr. Charles Mayo of the Mayo Clinic. He was examined by Mayo and endured 6 days of arduous medical tests before he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Eleanor instructed the physicians to withhold the full devastating impacts of the disease and while he knew that his playing days were over he thought that he might “need a cane in 10 or 15 years.”
However Gehrig knew that his days were numbered and on the 21st the Yankees announced his retirement. July 4th was proclaimed Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day by the Yankees and a ceremony was held between games of a double header against the Senators that day. His teammates and former teammates gathered with a crowd of over 61,000 fans while numerous dignitaries spoke in his honor. His number was retired and when the the speeches and presentations were complete Big Lou spoke.
The speech is one that will not be forgotten. I remember reading it as a kid when I read a biography about Gehrig in 3rd Grade. I would later see the video of the speech and when I watch it today I am filled with awe and deep emotions, sometimes I even cry. That speech by a dying man is not one of pity but of gratefulness despite the adversity that Gehrig faced.
Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” Speech
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.
“So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”
Gehrig kept as active as his condition permitted, serving as a Parole Commissioner for the City of New York until he resigned about a month before his death due to his now greatly deteriorating health. On June 2nd 1941, 16 years to the day that he replaced Wally Pip at 1st Base in the Yankees starting lineup the Iron Horse died at his home. Mayor LaGuardia ordered the flags be lowered to half-staff in the city.
For 56 years Gehrig’s record remained unbroken, but 17 years ago tonight the unbreakable record was broken by Cal Ripken Jr. at Camden Yards against the California Angels.
Ripken’s record of 2632 games will probably not be broken in the next couple of decades if at all. Ripken’s record, as well as Gehrig’s before him are rare. Only seven players in the history of Major League Baseball have played in more than 1000 consecutive games. The two men forever linked by their extraordinary abilities and durability to withstand the brutal grind of the long and arduous baseball season need to remembered in this day when durability, consistency and stamina are not as appreciated by our society. Now it seems that many are more enamored with flash, glitter and the quick fame or infamy of men and women whose only claim to fame is their ignorance, arrogance and lack of talent.
It is also a night to remember that both Gehrig and Ripken also gave credit to their families, coaches and teammates. In an age when some want to say that they did it all by themselves Gehrig’s words about those that helped him are timeless. I know I know that I haven’t gotten where I am all by myself. I guess that is why I really appreciate both of these men.
Tonight is a night to reflect on long term excellence and to remember both Cal Ripken Jr and Lou Gehrig.