The 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s retirement speech at Yankee Stadium will be commemorated at Target Field and across major league baseball on Friday. Mentions of this are a reminder of the night of Sept. 6, 1995 in Baltimore, and witnessing Shirley Povich, a grand sports columnist, winding up with an amazing souvenir.
Here’s a slightly edited version of the column that I wrote for the next day’s Star Tribune:
BALTIMORE -- Shirley Povich, the eminent sportswriter of the Washington Post, was in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when the retirement ceremony was held for Lou Gehrig.
"That was not a celebration," Povich said. "We were on the verge of a mass cry from 60,000 people. The master of ceremonies saw Gehrig choking up and said, `I'm not going to ask Lou to speak.'
"Gehrig motioned him away. He stepped to the microphone and made his famous speech."
Gehrig said he was the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. Povich might have a right to make the same statement.
Povich had watched Gehrig - the Iron Horse - through much of his career. Wednesday, Povich, now 90, was sitting in the Camden Yards press box, behind home plate. This time, he was there for a celebration, not a mass cry.
This was the night when Cal Ripken Jr.'s 14-season pursuit of immortality would be concluded successfully, and Gehrig's record for most consecutive games played would fall.
"I never imagined this could happen," Povich said. "This is Mission Impossible. It required
an extraordinary man to surpass another extraordinary man."
Through the generations, baseball fans were so confident Gehrig's ironman record would never be challenged that it was placed in bronze. Gehrig's plaque that rests behind the center field fence
in Yankee Stadium includes the observation that his "amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time."
"I'm astounded by Cal Ripken," Povich said Wednesday. "Baseball will never see another like him." Then, the old newspaperman - still a twice-a-month columnist for the Post - smiled and said: "Of course, I said the same thing in 1939 . . . that we would never see another Gehrig."
Gehrig's streak came to an end early in the 1939 season. He to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester to find out why he was feeling weak and looking uncoordinated in the field. The Mayo doctors discovered that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Previously, Gehrig had suffered from lumbago, an affliction not often associated with ironmen. Twice, his sore back caused Gehrig to go to his manager and ask to be listed as the shortstop and leadoff hitter on the lineup card. He singled both times, then left for a pinch runner.
On another occasion during the streak, Gehrig's back was so bad that he was in the hospital. Ed Barrow, the Yankees general manager, declared that day's game to be a rainout, even though the skies were clear in New York.
No such maneuvering has been required in the case of Cal Ripken. He started the streak on May 30, 1982, the season in which he beat out Kent Hrbek for the American League's Rookie of the Year award. While Ripken passes Gehrig, Hrbek is in his first season of retirement.
Ripken's record is pure. He started the first 27 games at third base and the next 2,104 games
at shortstop. That adds up to 2,131 - one more than Gehrig.
Earlier this week, Ripken had said of The Streak: "I started the season with the idea I would roll with it. But it has been taxing. There is such a thing as positive stress, but this thing overwhelms me every day."
Wednesday, it was the adulation - not the stress - that was overwhelming. The evening turned into the coronation of an American hero. The president, the vice president and the most royal name in the history of streak-dom, 80-year-old Joe DiMaggio, were in attendance.
Again, the early innings were a buildup to the moment in the fifth, when the game became official and the huge banners attached to the B&O Warehouse behind right field were changed to update Ripken's streak.
This time, Damion Easley popped out to end California's fifth. The Orioles were leading 3-1, so that made it an official, honest-to-Gehrig ballgame.
There was dramatic music, balloons, streamers, fireworks and then the banner on the far right was changed from 0 to 1. That put the number at 2131.
The folks inside Camden Yards went into convulsions. On Tuesday, when Ripken tied Gehrig's record, the standing, stomping fans delayed the game at this point for 5 minutes, 20 seconds. This time, it took 22 minutes, 15 seconds for order to be restored.
On Tuesday, Ripken had waited until after the celebration to hit his home run. "I can't believe that ball went out," Ripken said to teammate Brady Anderson.
On Wednesday, Ripken hit his home run in the fourth, before the celebration. There was no suspense. Ripken had received a 3-0 hanger from California's Shawn Boskie and the baseball was gone to left field when Cal Jr. put his lumber on it.
This led to a happy lap around the bases. The dropping of the banner attached to the warehouse, the official fall of Gehrig's record, led to a hysterical romp around the entire field.
In the ninth inning, a Ripken foul ball came into the press box. The commemorative baseball with Ripken's name and the orange stitching bounced around and came to rest on the counter in the front row.
Michael Wilbon, a columnist for the Washington Post, let the baseball sit for a moment, then reached for it and handed the Ripken souvenir baseball to the man on his left – to Shirley Povich, the sportswriter who had been in Yankee Stadium for Lou Gehrig’s speech.