Today, June 1, marks a significant day in history for the New York Yankees, as it marks the 90th anniversary of Yankee Lou Gehrig beginning his “Iron Man” streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, a record that stood until Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. broke it in 1995.
As something that stood for 70 years, it was only right for a record of that magnitude to be passed on from one humble, hard-working ballplayer to another. But when you consider where professional sports is nowadays with the power of the players unions and the urge for less regular season games and more days off for players (and let’s not forget to mention player salaries), has the “Iron Man” record become a dated record? Did the record breath its last breath with Ripken?
On this day 90 years ago Gehrig began his streak as a pinch hitter for shortstop Paul “Pee Wee” Wanninger. The next day, in an attempt to shake up the lineup, manager Miller Huggins replaced a slumping Wally Pipp with Gehrig at first base. Of course many wonderful things happened between day one and his famous “Luckiest Man” speech, but we’ll save that for another time.
In 1939, with his health deteriorating due to ALS and, consequently, not having the strength he once had, 35-year-old Gehrig requested to manager Joe McCarthy to take him out of the lineup for their May 2 game against the Detroit Tigers. His last game was on April 30, where he went hitless against the Washington Senators.
We bring up this moment for a reason. Gehrig understood the amount of weight that was on his shoulders as a Yankee. He was relied on heavily, so much so that McCarthy didn’t dare to intervene and consider taking him out of the lineup (and if you can believe this, General Manager Ed Barrow even postponed a game because Gehrig was sick with the flu). The streak was his and had been his, but it didn’t play factor in Gehrig’s decision to stop playing. He simply went into McCarthy’s office and explained he was benching himself “for the good of the team.” He didn’t consider that his slow play was an early-season slump, he knew right then and there that it was over, and he put the team ahead of his God-like status as a Yankee and the sake of the record.
And you know what? The 1939 Yankees won 106 games and the World Series.
When you throw into one cauldron class, sports, leadership and commerce, you pretty much have what sports is today, which is where the record and a player’s character comes into question. The proper thing now is for a legendary ball player to announce his retirement before the season and make the season their farewell tour, instead of allowing their team to have a competitive year. I won’t dispute Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter’s farewell seasons, those were well-deserved and I supported them considering the circumstances, but I will say that there were fans, even Yankees fans, who were hoping that the team would be out of playoff contention by September so they could give each of them a proper final sendoff, and that shouldn’t be what sports is about. Also, all season long, stadiums that hosted Yankee games were having box office success, so the people upstairs were benefiting off these farewell seasons as well. They hope to breed players like that so they can continue to do it.
Lastly, where Major League Baseball is now with the players union urging to downsize the regular season, expand the rosters to give more players opportunities to play and more days for players to rest and looking out for the players’ safety, it appears that Gehrig and Ripken will forever be the only two names people mention in the same breath as “Iron Man.” With that, we can celebrate the “Iron Man” record’s 90th birthday today, but much like the Roman Empire, it came, it saw, it conquered, and then it suddenly ended.