A Legend in the Making


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Maybe a couple of his closest friends on the team knew, perhaps his wife, but most members of the press probably didn't, and certainly not the fans; there were rows of empty seats for Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.

The Iron Horse, as Gehrig was called, participated in 2,130 consecutive games, playing through sickness and a broken finger and the inevitable sprains and bruises.

Although that streak was over, it was widely assumed Gehrig would eventually work his way back onto the field. This was his nature.

But Gehrig was dying as he tried to compose himself on that sunny afternoon. The Yankees manager, Joe McCarthy, persuaded him to say some words, and among those were the most famous in baseball history.

''Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got,'' Gehrig began. ''Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.''

The slow, wrenching, devastating demise of Gehrig is illuminated in Richard J. Tofel's excellent book about the 1939 Yankees, ''A Legend in the Making.'' The 1927 Yankees are generally regarded as one of baseball's greatest teams, with a Murderers' Row lineup that included Babe Ruth and a young Gehrig. And often the Yankees of 1961, the Oakland Athletics of 1972-74, the Cincinnati Reds of 1975-76 and the Yankees of 1998 are compared with the '27 team. But the '39 Yankees may have been better than any of them, finishing the season with a record of 106-45; Connie Mack, the legendary manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, concluded at the time that the '39 Yankees were history's greatest team.

As Tofel notes, that group of Yankees essentially established the franchise as a dynasty, becoming the first team to win three consecutive championships, before winning a fourth straight title in 1939.

Many longtime Yankees had their best individual seasons in 1939. Joe DiMaggio batted .381 with 30 homers and just 20 strikeouts, Red Rolfe scored 139 runs, second baseman Joe Gordon was among four players with more than 100 runs batted in, and seven pitchers compiled 10 or more victories. As the '98 Yankees won daily and challenged records, their press releases included the corresponding won-loss records of other teams through 50 games, through 60 games, etc., and they seemed to be constantly chasing the success of the '39 Yankees.

Tofel presents the season as it unfolds, day to day and week to week, rather than viewing it in retrospect, and this approach works well. DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak won't occur until 1941, and the name Marilyn Monroe does not yet exist; what we see of DiMaggio, in 1939, is a staggering young star whose relationship with the team is becoming increasingly complicated. We see an aging pitcher, Red Ruffing, receiving treatment on his arm from his wife, in an era when there is virtually no understanding of rotator cuffs or elbow ligaments.

And what we see in Gehrig, at the outset of spring training, is confusion. He is 36 years old and coming off a season in which he slugged 29 home runs, and while he understands that performance diminishes with age, Gehrig is suddenly struggling to run at all, to move, to stand. He can't do the simplest things, like catching throws to first base. Extremely sensitive, easily hurt by perceived slights, always desperate to please, Gehrig tells reporters he just needs to work harder.

But McCarthy is concerned, and begins hinting at possible change. The manager knows how much Gehrig's consecutive-game streak means to him. There have been times in the past when Gehrig has extended the streak by playing only an inning, but when sentimentality intrudes in baseball, the result is rarely good for the team. According to baseball lore, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, but as Tofel shows, it's more likely that McCarthy indicated firmly to Gehrig that it was time to end the streak; Gehrig was benched after the first four games of the regular season.

At the time, it seemed that Gehrig was a star player fading with age. What he became, after his diagnosis and his speech at Yankee Stadium and his death, is something greater. The illness that killed him now bears his name; when Cal Ripken broke Gehrig's consecutive-game record in 1995, the funds to research Lou Gehrig's disease increased dramatically. Gehrig is almost a baseball super hero now, in conventional wisdom.

What we learn of Gehrig in Tofel's book, his first, is more compelling, more touching. As his body fails him by season's end, he is unable to carry the lineup card to home plate. Gehrig first fears for his streak, then for his career, then for the feelings of his wife. As he stands at the microphone on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, almost certainly knowing his fate, he musters extraordinary perspective and grace.

Buster Olney, a sportswriter for The Times, covered the Yankees from 1998 to 2001.

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Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company.
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