The one professional sports record that I admired the most was also
the one that I never believed would be broken. Starting when he replaced
Wally Pipp at first base for the Yankees in 1925, Lou Gehrig played 2,130
consecutive games. Until he was felled, by what is now colloquially called
Lou Gehrig’s disease in medical circles, the slugging Yankee iron man
played through injuries, bouts of influenza and gout. He played very well
indeed with a lifetime batting average of .340.
Since Gehrig retired on that sad day in 1939, no American ballplayer
has come close to challenging his record. Last week in Japan, however,
Sachio Kinugasa, a third baseman for the Toyo Carp, played his 2,131
consecutive game to widespread celebration. In a typical understatement,
the modest Kinugasa, said: “I’m relieved that it’s over.”
Kinugasa, whose lifetime batting average is 271, took 17 years to do
what Gehrig did in 15 years. Japanese teams play 130 games a year, while
the Yankees played 154 games a year during Gehrig’s time. The Yankees
traveled more miles to get to American League cities. There were fewer
medications then to reduce pain or make injuries more manageable on the
field. And we will never know how many more games Gehrig would have played
were it not for the sudden affliction that took his life so early.
The new Japanese iron man had his own pressures as well. It was he who
had to endure the stress of playing every game to break that record. Once
in 1979, Kinugasa fractured his shoulder when hit by a pitched ball. He
stayed in the game, every game.
While few in the U.S.A. or Japan believe that baseball in that country
is equal to American or National League quality, our hat’s off to the new record
holder of that esteemed quality of stamina in sports.
Lou Gehrig was my number one sport’s hero as a child. It was not just because of his home run hitting prowess or his uncanny ability to hit in the clutch. Nor was it his self-effacing character that made it easier for Babe Ruth to follow him in the lineup as cleanup hitter and take the lion’s share of public praise. It was his determination to persist, to perfect through relentless practice his originally modest gifts as a fielder that fostered my admiration of this Columbia University baseball star.
There is much talk these days about athletes failing to be role models for
their young fans. Gehrig did not have to try. His way of life was his role
model. More than not drinking or being a celebrated glutton, apropos the
colorful Babe, the “Pride of the Yankees,” as his biographer called Gehrig,
stood for personality traits that transcend sports — honesty, fairness, self‑
control, hard work, self-improvement and the stamina which makes the other
qualities continue over time.
Once on a television show, I expressed to an interviewer what I learned from
Gehrig’s career. Soon a letter arrived from Mrs. Gehrig, then in her eighties,
expressing her thanks for my comments. She knew better than anyone what a
special person her husband was to many youngsters of that era of Yankee baseball.