Half-hidden in the dugout, he sits in monotones, a man at ease. Although he was a struggling young ballplayer, hitting .174 with no home runs in his second season in the big leagues, he doesn't appear haunted by failure. Perhaps he already understood his greatness. He's Lou Gehrig, the Yankees' Iron Horse. That very day, his famous record would begin.
Dominating the screen at the right foreground stands the already famous Babe Ruth. While he's established himself as the game's biggest star, he's not yet the complete Ruth — his greatest accomplishments lay in the future.
The images come from a newsreel film recently discovered at the University of South Carolina's moving image research collection. The Fox Movietone from June 1, 1925, shows moments of the New York Yankees playing the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium. Tom Shieber, senior curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame, found the footage while looking for film of Ruth. The story is told on Shieber's Baseball Reseaarcher web site. Keith Olbermann showed the film on his ESPN show Tuesday night, and The New York Times' excellent Richrd Sandomir in Wednesday's paper gives a good account of the discovery.
Shieber deduced that the film was taken on the day that Gehrig began his famous record of playing 2,130 consecutive games. On that afternoon, Gehrig pinch hit for shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger, flying out. The next day, Gehrig started at first base in place of Wally Pipp and would not leave the New York lineup until May 1, 1939.
Movietone apparently decided that the game was worth recording because it was Ruth's first day of the season after missing the first 41 games with stomach problems. The film shows a surprisingingly awkward Ruth at bat. According to Shieber, Ruth grounded out three times before being pulled from the game. The film also shows famous Washington pitcher Walter Johnson, the "Big Train," Yankees outfielder Earle Combs and Senators catcher Muddy Ruel. In a reversal of the "Damn Yankees" story, the Senators would win the pennant that year, while the Yankees finished seventh.
Soon, Gehrig would join Ruth as the second pillar of the Yankees' championship legacy. In 1927 came Ruth's astonishing 60 home runs, and the Yankees' anointment as Murderers' Row, the greatest team ever. They are towering figures of the game: Ruth's 714 home runs, Gehrig's enduring exellence. Both are also linked by their courage facing tragedy. Gehrig's career was cut short by the debilitating disease that now bears his name, his heroic grace exemplified by his farewell speech, baseball's Gettysburg Address. Ruth in his last days battled cancer with quiet dignity.
The film captures an entrancing moment of history not yet realized. Ruth and Gehrig are shown enjoying stray moments of an ordinary summer afternoon, their destinies awaiting.