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It was 17 years ago this week that Lou Gehrig learned of the fatal illness that ended his career. This is the story of the day he quit baseball, by the man who replaced him

When I think of May 2, 1939, in Briggs Stadium, Detroit, I first think of a quiet clubhouse, a large clubhouse, under the stands. Even as we dressed, putting on our baseball uniforms, for some reason there was a desire to stay in the clubhouse. What it was, nobody knew, but there was a silence even too quiet for a Yankee dressing room. Usually, the fellows talked out loud, but this day they weren't talking; they were whispering.

I finished dressing, but instead of leaving the clubhouse and walking down the long ramp underneath the stands to the dugout, I sat in front of my locker, checking the leather lace in the web of my glove. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder and I looked up into the eyes of Art Fletcher, the greatest coach I ever knew in baseball. He was close to me, real close, close enough to count the whiskers on his chiseled chin as he said softly, almost in a whisper, "Babe, you're playing first base today."

I was stunned. The only thing this meant to me at that moment was that after 14 uninterrupted years of play and a fantastic total of 2,130 consecutive games, Lou Gehrig, the Yankees' great first baseman, was not going to play. True, Lou had been having some early season difficulties, but no one thought then of anything like the crippling illness that was actually spreading through his body. I almost asked: "Are you kidding?" But Art was walking away. He looked back over his shoulder and said, "Good luck, Babe." I felt more taps on the back and more good wishes as I found myself walking down the ramp to the dugout and the field. I went out on the field and started tossing the ball around, warming up. Photographers were all over the field, reporters, too. They were taking Lou's picture and my picture, then one of Lou and me, and then still more.

Just before Lou was to take the lineup to Umpire Basil (Lou was our captain), he and I came face to face in the dugout. Even though we had taken several pictures together this was the first time we were alone and able to talk. I guess every kid has yearned for the opportunity that I now had, but I can truthfully say that I did not want to play that day. I wanted my boyhood hero to go on with his streak, and I was wishing I was not there.

I didn't know how to start. I knew how Lou must feel. This whole thing must be breaking his heart, what with all the news interest building up to this terrific climax which even Lou was not ready to accept. I know there were tears in our eyes as we looked at each other, and I heard myself saying: "Come on, Lou, you better get out there, you've put me in a terrible spot." I had a choke in my voice by this time, feeling like a culprit going out there on the field in Lou's place.

Lou slapped me on the back and said, "Go on, get out there and knock in some runs." Up the dugout steps he went with the lineup, and my eyes followed him to the plate where he handed the card to Umpire Basil.

There was applause as Gehrig made his appearance. A moment later it was announced over the public address system that Lou was stopping his consecutive game streak, and as he turned from the plate to return to the dugout the fans stood up and cheered. Lou tipped his cap and grinned broadly but he couldn't get to the dugout fast enough; he was never one for applause.

When he reached the dugout, Lou headed for the drinking fountain. It was a long time before he looked up, with watery eyes, and the players looked away to yell at the Tigers in this awkward moment. I guess they were all glassy-eyed. Lou wiped his eyes with one of the big fluffy towels while nobody looked, and the game was on.

We had a field day that day in Detroit. I managed to pick up a double and a home run in the 22-2 slaughter. Detroit couldn't do anything right and we couldn't do anything wrong. I went to Lou in the seventh inning and said, "Lou, you had better get in there now and keep that streak going." He slapped me on the back and replied: "They don't need me out there; you're doing fine."

And so from the field I looked into the dugout waiting for Lou to come charging out saying, "Out of my way, I'm taking over!" But he didn't. The eighth, then the ninth inning came, but Lou kept sitting on the dugout steps, an inspiration and truly the pride of the Yankees.