Gehrig, Gordon and Glenn Back Gomez
NEW YORK – The Yankees rolled into the last week of the 1938 season in good form. Manager Joe McCarthy was approaching a baseball record achieved only by Connie Mack in the hey-day of the Philadelphia Athletics at the turn of the decade – three consecutive seasons with more than 100 victories.
On September 27, the Yanks faced the cellar-dwelling Washington Senators beginning the last Stadium series of the year. The game meant little for both teams, as the Yankees had clinched the pennant on the 18th of that month, and the lowly Senators were likely dreaming of idle days on the farm. Only 2,773 fans showed their faces at the Stadium on that warm, late afternoon, one of whom was Clarence ‘Pants’ Rowland, a scout for the Chicago Cubs, who had finally taken cognizance of the possibility of meeting New York in that year’s World Series. After being spotted by Charlie McManus, superintendent of the Stadium, he was escorted to a box seat and provided with two assistants, Yankee scouts Paul Krichell and Gene McCann, for the day, both of whom were eager to humor the man’s quest to give his team the upper hand.
Hours before the game began, the Yankees had posed for its annual team photographs behind the backstop, draped in their road grays and blue undershirt sleeves. Additionally, shots of select sluggers and fielders were taken to advertise World Series match-ups. Afterwards, Yankees Joe DiMaggio, Charlie ‘Red’ Ruffing and Bill Dickey were presented with Buick automobiles by sportswriter James Dawson, for being elected to the Kellogg All-American Baseball Popularity Team that year, with each of the players being the top-ranked at their positions.
At game time, Vernon ‘Lefty’ Gomez, though almost completely debilitated by a cold, was on the mound for the Bombers, looking for his eighteenth victory of the season. The southpaw was dominant in his outing, exhibiting masterful control without a single base on balls. More importantly, ‘Goofy’ Gomez allowed only two hits – singles by Al Simmons and Buddy Myers – until the seventh frame. Buddy Lewis started the inning with a single, and when Taffy Wright smacked a double play ball that first bounded past Gomez’ glove and then took a freak hop over Joe Gordon’s head at second, Lewis made it to third, and Wright had officially extended his hitting streak to 21 consecutive games. Zeke Bonura drove Lewis in while driving the ball to Frank Crosetti at short, starting the double play that should have occurred minutes earlier.
The Yankees pounced ex-Dodger right-hander, Emil ‘Dutch’ Leonard, for ten hits, picking up single runs at a time, deviating from the habit of scoring in clusters they had become accustomed to over the past few seasons. The Yanks first tally came in the opening frame when third baseman Red Rolfe beat out a bunt to the pitcher, and then advanced to second on Leonard’s wild throw. Rolfe later scored when Joe DiMaggio doubled. Joe Gordon doubled in the third off of a knuckle ball, with catcher Joe Glenn driving him home with a single. The duo would repeat the same scenario in the fourth, with the identical result.
It was in the fifth inning that first-sacker Gehrig stepped up to the plate with no one on base, and launched his 29th homer of the season off of a Leonard knuckler. The ball landed in the Washington bullpen in right field, abruptly scattering the sleepy-eyed relievers benched behind the small fence, and was good for the Yank’s fourth run of the day. Pictured is the ‘Iron Horse’ watching his wallop sail past the barrier, with a dejected Leonard on the mound, Tony Giuliani behind the plate, Bill Summers umpiring, and Cecil Travis at short following suit.
Though Monte Weaver would come into the game and pitch two innings unscathed for the visitors, Senator right-hander Harry Kelley let another Yankee tally through in the eighth. Washington attempted to rebound once more in the ninth inning. With two outs, Yankee leftfielder George Selkirk lost Wright’s fly in the gathering dusk and it fell for a triple, later scoring on a Bonura single. However, Washington’s two runs would not be enough – the Yanks clinched the contest 5-2, the first set of consecutive wins for the Bombers in almost three weeks.
With his stellar performance, it seemed that Gomez made a brighter case for starting the opener against whomever the Yanks would face in the Fall Classic. Both teams in consideration, the Cubbies and Corsairs, were battling it out that same afternoon at Wrigley Field for the final time that season in an all-important series. With Chicago winning 31 of their last 48 starts, and the Pirates playing .500 baseball since the beginning of August, the National League pennant could have been all but decided that very day.
Ultimately, Manager McCarthy never saw his 100th win of the season, as the pinstripers took only one more contest that season, and closed the books with a final series in Boston. Chicago would beat the Pirates dramatically on Gabby Hartnett’s 9th inning home run, to vault them into first place for good.
The Yanks would face Chicago in that year’s World Series, and Red Ruffing, not Gomez, would get the nod to open the series for New York. The Bombers easily dispatched of the Bruins in four quick games, flaunting the fine-tuned machine that steamrolled through the American League that regular season. The veterans Bill Dickey and Frankie Crosetti contributed big for the Yanks, as did youngsters DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich and Joe Gordon.
Virtually missing from the action, however, was Gehrig. Hitting only four singles in fourteen at-bats in the series, Lou drove in no runs – a sharp contrast to his usual post-season output. In his previous six series, he had averaged .386, hit 10 homers and batted in 35 runs. The first basemen had a solid 1938 season, though by no means was it standard fare for the great man. He batted .295, hit 29 round trippers and drove 114 runs home – which was a far cry from his stats in 1937, when he batted .351 and slugged .643 – and fans in New York started to think that he had begun the eventual decline of the aging athlete. It is fair to say that nobody seriously considered that the Yankee captain might have been ill.
Gehrig’s homer that September 27th afternoon would be the 493rd of his career, and ultimately, his last.