Gehrig in shadow, again

In case you missed today’s “And That Happened” entry by Craig Calcaterra (and you shouldn’t have), along with all the other sports news since late last night, Alex Rodriguez got into the record books again.

When he hit a grand slam in the eighth inning against Atlanta, he did more than sweep away a 4-0 deficit on the road to a comeback win. A-Rod’s grand slam was the 23rd of his career, tying the mark held for so long by Lou Gehrig. Closing his Yankees-Braves recap, Craig archly noted, “I expect someone today will write a column in a New York tabloid about how A-Rod doesn’t deserve to hold the record or some noise like that.”

I don’t write for a New York tabloid. (The real fun there, of course, is composing their front and back-page headlines.) They can write whatever noise they like. My regret today is not really that Rodriguez matched the record, but that it’s not wholly Gehrig’s any more.

Lou Gehrig was always fated to be overshadowed. What other explanation is there? He would have been the undisputed star of three-quarters of the teams in baseball when he hit his playing stride, maybe more. He wound up playing with Babe Ruth, the Un-eclipsable Man.

He got along well in his supporting role, to say the least. Eventually Ruth’s career wound down, with Lou still in prime shape. He was named team captain, and in 1936 led the Yankees to their latest championship, first of an unprecedented string of four. And the talk was all about this raw-boned rookie from California, name of DiMaggio. He was really gonna be something special, wasn’t he?

Lou kept smiling, and kept playing. Until he couldn’t play any more. Even at that fabled Fourth of July ceremony in 1939, you couldn’t say Gehrig finally had his day in the sun. The shadow of Death was looming too close.

At least he had a few records that nobody was ever going to touch. Chief among them was his consecutive-game streak: at 2,130, a mark held up for decades as beyond breaking. That is, until Cal Ripken Jr. cruised past it, in a moment of such joy and class that not even the bitterest Gehrig partisan could begrudge Ripken his awesome achievement. (And that 2,632 figure really does look unbreakable, doesn’t it?)

But at least there was still the American League single-season RBI mark. Gehrig had that at 184, set in 1931, and nobody in the modern game was likely to make a run. Nobody in the modern game has—but someone from Gehrig’s era did. In the most recent SABR Baseball Research Journal, Herm Krabbenhoft published the results of his painstaking examination of Hank Greenberg‘s day-by-day records. Among other things, he discovered a missing RBI tallied on June 20, 1937, that never made the official records. The original Hammering Hank drove in 183 runs that season, officially. In truth, he had 184, tying Gehrig’s record while Lou was still active.

It’s a tough way to lose a record: not just for Lou, but for Hank. He never got to learn that he had matched Gehrig’s mark, and that’s a pity. As for Gehrig, well, at least the tie came from someone getting an RBI added, rather than him losing one on a double-counting error. It’s more dignified that way, even if once again he had to move over and share the stage.

And at least he had the grand-slam record all to himself. Until last night. Move over, Lou.

I’ll say it: Lou Gehrig deserves a record or two all to himself. He deserves something in the game where he is number one, not 1-A. He deserves something out of the shadows. That’s my sentimentalism speaking, and so be it. Sentimentalism is woven into the game: it’s part of what makes it matter so much to us. To me, it’s not quite right if our lone singular image of him is that sad figure standing before a forest of microphones, exhibiting the quiet bravery that would define him even more than his play.

But that isn’t so terrible. A number of great ballplayers have been lousy human beings, whose mortality did not move grown men to tears. Maybe there is no crying in baseball, but Lou Gehrig proved there can be crying between games of a doubleheader, when they held his farewell ceremony. Perhaps this should be a moment to remember and celebrate instead. Perhaps we should go listen to his speech—not the re-ordered, Hollywood-ized version they put in Gary Cooper’s mouth, but the one he delivered himself. Listen to it all: that would honor him.

Except we can’t. There is no full audio or video recording of Lou Gehrig’s farewell address. The transcript we have is pieced together from various film and tape snippets, along with reporters’ notes. And we probably shouldn’t trust those notes too much. Go look up The New York Times for July 5, 1939, and its story on Gehrig’s ceremony. See how it turned the most famous line he would ever speak into a garbled, mis-quoted mess in less than 24 hours.

Y’know, Craig, maybe the New York papers ought to stand up for Lou Gehrig a little today. Seems they owe him one.

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Comments

  1. InnocentBystander said...

    His best game was overshadowed too. He hit 4 homers in 1932…but it was the same day John McGraw announced his retirement. Poor Lou. Though by most accounts he doesn’t seem like the person who cared about such things.

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