|Gehrig Streak Reviewed|
By Raymond J. Gonzalez
It was 50 years ago, on June 1, 1925, that Lou Gehrig began his remarkable record of playing in 2130
consecutive major league games. For the next 14 years, Yankee managers did not have to worry about who was playing first base for the New Yorkers. This does not mean that Gehrig always played the initial sack or that he played every inning of every game. Only in 1931 did Lou play every inning and one game was in the outfield.
Actually, this is a story about those players who briefly replaced Gehrig when he was sick or injured, or when he eased up in September after the Yankees had clinched their numerous pennants, or when he was ejected from a game. Yes, he was ousted at least six times in his career. To modern Gehrig fans, this may come as a surprise, because it seems inconsistent with his quiet demeanor off the field. While Gehrig did not have Babe Ruth's bombastic and tempestuous personality on the field (for which the latter was suspended several times), Lou nevertheless was a very forceful player and was on top of every play. He was very competitive and was not averse to confronting the umpires.
In 1925 when Gehrig was breaking in, there was no indication that he was going to be an every-day performer any more than Combs, Meusel, or any other Yankee. In fact, on the first day of what later became his "streak" he was a pinch hitter. Two days later Aaron Ward pinch hit for him in the ninth, and when the game went into extra innings, Wally Pipp, heretofore the regular first-sacker, took Lou's place in the field. This happened several times that month. On July 5, the starting Yankee first baseman was Fred Merkle, renowned for a miscue with the Cubs two decades earlier. Lou got into the game only in the last inning when the aging Merkle fainted from the heat. On July 21 Gehrig was injured by an Earl Whitehill pitch and Merkle relieved him.
Since all the variations in Gehrig's 14-year streak at first base are noted on the accompanying list, I will cite only a few cases of particular interest.
In a late season stunt on September 28, 1930, Gehrig played the entire game in leftfield while Ruth pitched a complete game victory over the Red Sox. Harry Rice played first, and this ended Lou's streak of 885 games at the initial sack, still a major league record.
Early the next season another switch was made, necessitated by Ruth's leg injuries. To keep the Bambino's big bat in the lineup, the Yanks played Ruth at first base May 4, 1931 against Washington, and Lou took the Babe's place in right field. The Iron Horse starred at bat but made one error in the garden.
In 1934 Gehrig had several threats to his streak, but each time responded brilliantly. On May 10, he played only five innings because he was suffering from a severe cold. Of course, by that time he had already hit two homers and two doubles for seven runs batted in. On June 29 he was hit in the head by a pitched ball in an exhibition game in Norfolk. Surprisingly, he was able to start the next day in Washington where he hit three triples in 4-1/2 innings before the game was rained out.
The biggest threat to his string came on July 13, 1934, with the Yanks playing in Detroit. He had a severe case of lumbago. After singling off Tommy Bridges and rounding first base, he was immobilized with pain. He was helped from the field and Jack Saltzgaver took over at first. It looked like his streak was to end at 1426 games. The nextday Detroit fans were startled to see Gehrig's name listed in the starting lineup at shortstop and leading off. It was a managerial maneuver for the visiting team. Lou, hardly able to stand, banged out a single as the first man up. He quickly gave way to pinch-runner Red Rolfe and retired to his hotel bed. Rolfe played the entire game at short, although Gehrig was officially credited with an appearance there. Saltzgaver played the entire contest at first.
Although still wobbly, Gehrig returned to the lineup at first base the next day, July 15, and collected four hits in four trips, including three doubles off Schoolboy Rowe. His consecutive game streak nearly came to an end in that Detroit series, but his batting average did not suffer. He went 6-for-6, en route to his only batting title and the triple crown.
Gehrig continued in the Yankee lineup for the next five years. Finally, on May 2, 1939, in another series with the Tigers in. Detroit, the Iron Horse stayed in the dugout. For the first time in 14 years, his name did not appear in the Yankee lineup -- in any capacity.
In summary, during those 2130 consecutive games, Lou was relieved by a pinch hitter eight times, by a pinch runner four times, and at first base 64 times, sometimes by the same pinch hitter or runner, and sometimes when Gehrig was installed at another position. In case you wondered what Yankee player substituted the most times for Gehrig, at first base in the period 1925-39, it was Jack Saltzgaver, who played varying lengths of time in 17 games. Fortunately Jack was able to play second and third, or he wouldn't have had much activity.
Here is the full replacement log for Gehrig in the period June 1, 1925 to May 2, 1939.