Lou Gehrig: An Oasis In The Mannywood Desert

Christopher MohrContributor IJuly 4, 2009

SAN DIEGO - JULY 3:  A fan holds up a sign after Manny Ramirez #99 of the Los Angeles Dodgers grounded out in the second inning against the San Diego Padres during the game on July 3, 2009 at Petco Park in San Diego, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

This weekend the Dodgers are coming to San Diego for a three game series against the Padres. Many baseball fans are celebrating the return of Manny Ramirez from a 50 game suspension after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.

Mannywood has become bigger than the game itself to the point that no one will talk about anything else.

It's even a front page story on Independence Day in a military town like San Diego, enough to make the NIMBY in me want to lobby for 47 or 53 game suspensions.

Look, I realize fans are free to root for whomever and whatever they want, but I still can't help feeling disappointed over all the hype, so I won't join in.

This weekend I will not watch any of the sports channels, nor will I watch my team, the Padres, in person or on TV. Once 'Manny has left the building' it will be safe to watch sports again.

Instead, I will celebrate one of baseball's finest moments. Seventy years ago, on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig gave his farewell speech not only to Yankees fans, but to all fans of baseball. It was fitting to honor a great American on a day when America celebrates its birth.

Ludwig Heinrich Gehrig was born June 19, 1903 in New York City to working class German immigrants. He showed a natural talent  for hitting the long ball when at age 17, he hit a grand slam out of Cubs Park (which later became Wrigley Field) while  playing for his high school team.

Many of Gehrig's records have stood the test of time. He continues to hold records in several offensive categories for first basemen and still holds the career record for grand slams with 23. His .340 batting average, 493 home runs and 1,995 runs batted in are among the best career totals in the game. No juice and no asterisks, either.

Equally impressive was his relatively low strikeout numbers for a power hitter. Gehrig struck out only 790 times in 8,001 career at-bats. By comparison, another Yankee power hitter, Reggie Jackson, struck out 2,597 times in 9,864 at-bats.

He has influenced the sports vernacular as athletes today dread the possibility of being 'pipped'. On June 2, 1925, Gehrig replaced Wally Pipp and went on to play 2,130 consecutive games, a record that stood until Cal Ripken Jr. broke it in 1995.

A common urban legend (why aren't there any rural legends?) was that Pipp asked to sit out the game with a headache. What actually happened is that the Yankees were struggling at the time, so manager Miller Huggins replaced Pipp with Gehrig in an effort to rejuvenate the team.

Pipp's so called headache actually occurred a month later when he was beaned on the head while taking batting practice. It is also important to note that Gehrig's streak actually began during the previous game, the day before he went in for Pipp, when he made a pinch hitting appearance.

However, as is often the case, most people won't let facts stand in the way of a good story, or terrorizing a veteran whose starting position is threatened by a young phenom.

Gehrig is the only player to wear the number four for the New York Yankees. When he started playing for them in 1923, the team didn't have uniform numbers.

Six years later, the team made the numbers a permanent fixture on the uniform, originally used to designate the player’s position in the batting order. Gehrig, the cleanup hitter at the time, wore number four while Babe Ruth batted one position earlier and wore number three. The number was retired on July 4, 1939 when Gehrig made his famous farewell speech. He became the first Major League ballplayer to have such an honor.

Only ALS could end the Iron Horse's consecutive games streak. Gehrig admitted to having a lack of energy during the 1938 season and it would only get worse. During spring training in 1939, Gehrig's strength and coordination had declined so badly that even the most routine plays were difficult. In spite of these struggles, Gehrig remained the starter at first for the Pinstripes.

In a move that shocked the baseball world, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup on May 2, 1939 when the Yankees were in Detroit to face the Tigers. After telling manager Joe McCarthy that he was sitting this game out, he presented the starting lineup to the umpires and it was announced over the public address system that Gehrig's consecutive games streak had ended at 2,130.

This was a move made by a player who never considered himself larger than his team or the game, even though he might have had every right to.

If there's any shred of decency left in this world, it is my hope that seventy years from now that Lou Gehrig will still be remembered while Mannywood has long ago fallen into the shredder of oblivion.