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Jun 4

MLB’s Lou Gehrig Day is a nod to greatness — and humanity

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Major League Baseball celebrates Lou Gehrig

Opinion by David Von Drehle

What is more prosaic than time? It marches with relentless regularity, tock after tick, hour after hour. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” as Shakespeare put it, “creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time.” Yet even time writes a bit of poetry now and then, as it did on June 2, 1941, when the circle of Lou Gehrig’s greatness closed precisely 16 years to the day after it began.

June 2, 1925, was the day Miller Huggins, manager of the New York Yankees baseball club, made what he hoped would be a permanent change to his lineup, listing the strapping 21-year-old Henry Louis Gehrig as his starting first baseman. Huggins could not have imagined how utterly his hopes would be granted. Gehrig at first for the Yankees became the epitome of permanence. Game after game, season after season, this splendid athlete took the field. His record of 2,130 consecutive starts set a mark for endurance that stood for more than half a century.

First base, but second fiddle — the greatest second fiddle in the history of sports. For it was Gehrig’s fate to join the dynasty built around baseball’s ultimate superstar, Babe Ruth. You might say Ruth put the “roar” in the Roaring ’20s, reflecting a world-beating, hard-partying America back to itself. Radio and film together created a nation besotted by celebrity, and Ruth was the prototype.

Ruth oozed a magnetic quality that the 16th-century writer Castiglione called “sprezzatura . . . a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort.” When coupled with superhuman feats, such as Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927, this insouciance seems godlike.

Gehrig was not godlike. He was human, only better. “He just went out and did his job every day,“ said his teammate, catcher Bill Dickey. When Gehrig’s body was X-rayed late in life, the assortment of old fractures revealed in the images told a story of pain and grit. Once, a fastball to the head knocked him unconscious for an estimated five minutes. The next game, there he was at first base.

Serviceable on defense, Gehrig was magnificent at the plate, especially with men on base and the chance to drive them in. Eighty years after his death, he still holds the American League season record for runs batted in. He and Mickey Mantle are the only Yankees players to win the elusive Triple Crown as hitters, leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBI in a season.

He is a hero for those of us who believe there is more to life than stardom, that greatness is not measured by Nielsen ratings. Asked how he felt about playing in Ruth’s shadow, Gehrig replied with characteristic modesty: “It’s a pretty big shadow. It gives me lots of room to spread myself.”

Gehrig ended his streak in 1939, when he benched himself after struggling to make a routine play. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a brutal disease, incurable, by which a sound mind is gradually trapped, then snuffed out, by paralysis. He had been the first player in the modern era to hit four home runs in a single game — a possible fifth was stolen by a great catch at the wall — yet Gehrig’s finest moment on the field came after the diagnosis. Honored by his teammates and nearly 62,000 fans on July 4, 1939, he delivered a speech for the ages: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

He was dead within two years, just 37 years old.

This year, Major League Baseball will begin another great tradition: June 2 is henceforth Lou Gehrig Day. The anniversary of Gehrig’s death is an opportunity, at a time when social media “likes” and “followers” — attention for attention’s sake — are considered synonymous with influence, to reflect on the deeper influence of a virtuous example. Stardom is fleeting. When baseball fans voted on a team of the century in 1999, they picked Gehrig first. Among the cardinal virtues, according to the Stoics, are courage and wisdom. Gehrig teaches both.

The commemoration also seeks to build support for the fight against ALS, often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. My donation to the ALS Association will be made this year in honor of Gehrig and of a terrific newspaperman and even better friend, Timothy Clifford. Newsday of the 1980s and early 1990s was a wonder of journalism, a first-rate paper with the spunk of a tabloid. The place was stacked with talent, full of fun, wore its brains with ease and its heart on its sleeve. Clifford was a perfect fit.

Though Tim could hardly speak when last I saw him, his laugh was as quick as ever, and his eyes still danced. He died in December.

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