- The Washington Times - Monday, May 2, 2005

When the manager of the New York Yankees walked into the lobby of Detroit’s Book-Cadillac Hotel, the handsome, graying first baseman was waiting for him. Together they went up to the manager’s room, and Lou Gehrig turned to Joe McCarthy.

“I’m benching myself, Joe,” he said.

“Why?” McCarthy asked.

“For the good of the team.”

The date was May2, 1939, 66 years ago today. When the Yankees took the field against the Tigers at Briggs Stadium, journeyman Babe Dahlgren was at first base. It was something of a miracle that he remembered how to play the position.

Over 14-plus seasons, Gehrig had appeared in 2,130 consecutive regular-season games — a record everybody said would last forever. In this case, “forever” meant 56 years, until shortstop Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles surpassed it at Camden Yards on the memorable night of Sept.6, 1995.

Yet Ripken’s achievement did not detract from Gehrig’s heroic feat — or erase memories of the tragedy that followed.

Gehrig was dying the day he ended one of baseball’s all-time awesome careers (.340 batting average, .632 slugging average, 493 home runs, 1,995 RBI over 17 seasons). Though nobody knew it at the time and newspapers would not reveal it until years later, he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — known thereafter as Lou Gehrig disease.

ALS is an insidious killer that paralyzes a victim muscle by muscle until he or she no longer even can swallow and death comes by asphyxiation. Few terminal illnesses are more wrenching because the patient is fully aware of what is happening. There still is no cure.

Rarely does it afflict a person as young as Gehrig, who was weeks short of his 36th birthday when he sat down and approaching 38 when he died in June 1941. Nobody knows how long Gehrig had been suffering from the disease, but we do know his slugging power and defensive ability vanished during the second half of the 1938 season as suddenly as if someone had turned off a switch.

For the first half of ‘38, Gehrig belted the ball as he always had. Then, without warning, he fell into a fearsome slump as the season moved past the halfway mark. His final numbers were a .295 batting average, 29 home runs and 114 RBI — a fine season for anyone else but a dramatic dip from his 1937 figures of .351, 37 and 159. And as the Yankees won their third straight World Series, he was a nonfactor with just four looping singles in 14 at-bats.

That offseason Gehrig fell several times while ice skating, a favorite pursuit. When he reported for spring training, observers were shocked at how much further his physical condition had deteriorated. He toppled off his locker room stool one day; when he played golf, teammate Bill Dickey noted, he slid his feet along the grass as if picking them up was too much of an effort.

In exhibition games, Gehrig was pathetic. Once he missed 15 straight batting practice pitches as teammate Joe DiMaggio watched unbelievingly. He finished spring training with a .215 average and no legitimate extra-base hits. And in the Yankees’ first seven regular-season games, he had just four singles and one RBI in 28 at-bats. One opposing team walked DiMaggio intentionally to pitch to Gehrig — a tactic once unthinkable.

Then it was the afternoon of May2, and Lou was watching from the bench as Dahlgren prepared to play first base against the Tigers. In the generally excellent 1942 movie “The Pride of the Yankees,” starring Gary Cooper, Gehrig is shown ending the streak by taking himself out of the ballgame that day. Of course, this is the purest Hollywood hokum because such a move would have extended his streak to 2,131 games, thus forcing Ripken to wait one more day to shatter the record more than a half-century later.

We can only guess what went through Gehrig’s mind that day as Dahlgren took his position. Gehrig was not an outgoing man, and most of his teammates spoke in whispers as the game neared. While Dahlgren took infield practice, Gehrig chased fungos in the outfield, trying to awaken his failing body.

“Come on, Lou,” Dahlgren said right before the game. “You better get out there. You’ve put me in a terrible spot.”

Somehow Gehrig smiled. “Get out there, Babe, and knock in some runs,” he said.

Before the first pitch, team captain Gehrig walked slowly out to home plate to give the Yankees’ lineup card to the umpires. As he returned to the dugout, the Detroit fans gave him a standing ovation — and some noted sadly that his step was faltering.

“Fellows like him come along once in a hundred years,” McCarthy told reporters. “He’s always been a perfect gentleman, a credit to baseball. We’ll miss him — but I think he’s doing the proper thing.”

Gehrig played only once more, lasting three innings during an exhibition game in Kansas City, Mo., and nearly being knocked down by a line drive to first base. In mid-June, he went to the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where the doctors handed him a death sentence without telling him. For the rest of the season, he sat in the dugout watching as the Yankees won another pennant and World Series without him.

His illness was described cryptically in the newspapers as “a form of infantile paralysis,” and it was not generally known whether he knew it was terminal. Yet he did.

One day that summer, while being hailed by young fans outside Yankee Stadium, he turned to a reporter and said, “They’re wishing me good luck — and I’m dying.”

On July 4, as a huge throng filled the Stadium for Gehrig Appreciation Day, he delivered baseball’s most touching valedictory: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth …”

Nearby stood Babe Ruth — long estranged from his former teammate but now hugging him with tears rolling down his cheeks. McCarthy and Dahlgren stood together at Gehrig’s side, and the manager whispered, “Catch him if he starts to go down.”

Appointed to the New York City parole board by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1940, Gehrig tried to help wayward youngsters (including future boxing champion Rocky Graziano) before resigning in April 1941 with his condition steadily deteriorating.

On the evening of June 2, as DiMaggio reached the one-third point of his record 56-game hitting streak, Gehrig fell into a coma at his home in Riverdale, N.Y. Shortly before 10 o’clock, Frank Graham relates in his 1942 biography “Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero,” Gehrig opened his eyes and saw family and friends gathered around his bed. “He seemed surprised to see them there, for they had not been there just a moment before. And then, as though he had fallen asleep again, he died. Death had brought no pain, only bewilderment.”

Coincidentally, the Yankees were in Detroit again, and as McCarthy stepped out of a cab, the manager of his hotel said, “Gehrig died tonight.” Walking into the lobby, McCarthy saw the players gray and stunned. In his room, Dickey sobbed for his longtime roommate and friend.

More than 1,500 telegrams arrived at the Gehrig home. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent flowers, and LaGuardia ordered flags throughout New York City lowered to half-mast. A few days later, thousands of fans filed past Gehrig’s bier at Christ Episcopal Church in Riverdale, N.Y. After the funeral, his remains were cremated.

In his 1951 book “The World Series and Highlights of Baseball,” author Lamont Buchanan put it well: “To those who remember, the Yankees had one first baseman … and will never quite have another.”

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