NEW YORK – The first sacker had been the symbol of durability for the Yankee dynasties of the late 1920s and 1930s, amassing an astonishing record of playing in a record 2,130 consecutive games. Called a “Gibraltar in cleats” by Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray, Lou Gehrig batted at an astonishing .340 clip for his entire career, as well as hitting 493 homers and driving in 1,995 runs, the latter of which being a most incredible statistic, batting behind two of the games greatest base-cleaners, Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio.
Playing in the shadow of the boisterous Sultan of Swat, the shy Gehrig let his performance speak for himself, exuding a quality of professionalism that was infectious on his teammates after Ruth left the Yankees. He became, according to sportswriter Stanley Frank, “the most valuable player the Yankees ever had, because he was the prime source of their greatest asset – an implicit confidence in themselves and every man on the club”. However, despite his many accolades, it is the poignant retirement speech that the ‘Iron Horse’ gave on July 4, 1939, that he is best remembered for.
Coming off of a brilliant 1937 season in which he batted .351 and slugged .643, Gehrig’s stellar performance began to tail off in the summer months of ’38. Though he ended the year batting a respectable .295, with 29 homeruns and 114 runs batted in, it was felt that he had begun the slow decline of an aging veteran ballplayer. In that year’s World Series against Chicago, he did not shine either, hitting for a .286 average and only one run batted in.
By spring training of 1939, baseball’s centennial year, it was clear that something was wrong with the great man. Gehrig was a mere shadow of his former self; his once Herculean physique had faded to less than that of a mere mortal. Newspaper men noted that he was not making the plays he used to, trudging and wheezing, rather than speeding, around the base paths. It seemed as if this institution of the American League was crumbling before their eyes.
By the end of April, Gehrig had batted in but a single run, and was hitting at a measly .143 clip. What was more was that Gehrig had committed five errors during the first month of the season, three of which were kindly not called as such. With DiMaggio out because of an ankle injury, Gehrig had felt mounting pressure to pick up the slack. By the end of the month, he had realized that he was no longer capable of doing so.
On May 2, during a trip to Detroit, Gehrig told manager McCarthy that he was benching himself “for the good of the team”. Replaced in the Yankee batting order by Babe Dahlgren, Gehrig delivered the team lineup card to the umpires at home plate before the first pitch, and for the first time since 1925, his name was not on it. Lou remained a steady captain on the Yankee bench for weeks after, hoping that his strength and reflexes would somehow return.
As his debilitation became worse in that time span, Gehrig entered the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota on June 13. On his 36th birthday, six days after extensive testing, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The nature of this disease would not allow him to continue his play as a professional baseball player. With his central nervous system being attacked by this illness, he would rapidly lose the ability to control of his motor functions until the end, when his muscles would atrophy, and could no longer speak, swallow, and eventually, breathe. Perhaps what was the cruelest fate was that he would not experience any mental impairment throughout the grim prognosis.
The Yankees announced Gehrig’s official retirement on June 21, and would proclaim that the team, as well as the city of New York, would honor him between games during the upcoming holiday doubleheader against the Washington Senators. A huge crowd of 61,808 fans would pack Yankee Stadium to pay tribute to their beloved hero.
During the ceremony, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called Gehrig “the greatest prototype of good sportsmanship and citizenship” and Postmaster General James Farley concluded his speech by predicting, “For generations to come, boys who play baseball will point with pride to your record”. Joe McCarthy, the man whom with Gehrig had almost a father and son-like relationship, fighting back tears in vain, proclaimed that Gehrig was “the finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman, and citizen that baseball has ever known”.
A tearful Gehrig stood in front of the righty batter’s box, eyes fixated on the ground, prodding the dirt with his feet. One by one, he was presented with trophies and gifts from the multitude, from the groundskeepers and vendors to his own teammates and even the rival New York Giants.
Your view is right behind home plate with the Master of Ceremonies, Sid Mercer, at the microphones. Behind him are the Washington Senators, fresh off of their first game win from the twin bill earlier that afternoon. To the right of Sid are the members of the famous 1927 Yankees team, “Murderers Row”, of which Gehrig was an integral part. Lou stands in place with the various gifts at his feet, and his Yankee teammates behind him. Between both ballclubs and behind the pitcher’s mound, the grey-clad members of the Seventh Regiment Band stand attentively.
It was after remarks and a touching embrace by the great Babe Ruth, that a reluctant Gehrig was led to the microphone by his Yankee manager. With his head down, and his arms behind his back holding a handkerchief, Gehrig began to speak. “For the past few weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break” he claimed, with a slur of his last word.
“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth”. He spoke of privilege, a quality equated to associating with the good men standing in uniform in Yankee Stadium that very day, as well as the good fans of baseball who showered him with nothing but encouragement and kindness. The quiet hero expressed honor to simply know some of the people who would became architects of his great career, Colonel Jacob Ruppert, Edward Barrow, Miller Huggins, and Joe McCarthy. Gehrig went on to speak of the most important people who had played similar roles to that of the Yankees brass in his personal life. His parents had worked ceaselessly their entire lives to provide him with an education and solid morals. And his wife Eleanor, had been Gehrig’s own Gibraltar, showing more courage in the face of adversity than could have been asked for. “…I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for”, he said in closing. The ailing Gehrig thanked the crowd, and stepped away from the microphone, turning to do the same to the players and dignitaries who had gathered to shower him with their admiration and adulation.
Sadly, Gehrig would lose his battle with the disease that now bears his name at his home in the Fieldston section of the Bronx on June 2, 1941. He would have been 38 years old on June 19.