Pitchers Once Feared His Bat
DETROIT – When Lou Gehrig left the visiting Yankee dugout at Briggs Stadium to make his way over the home plate, he did not have a bat in his hand. The Tuesday, May 2 afternoon contest between the Yankee and Tigers had yet to begin. The first baseman was on his way to meet Detroit Manager Del Baker, and umpires Stephen Basil, Bill Summers, and Red Ormsby to yield the Yankee lineup card. It was a task that though usually performed by the team Manager, the Captain was sometimes called upon to do. For the first time in almost 15 years, Lou Gehrig’s name was missing from the paper. From May of 1925 until then, he had played in 2,130 consecutive games.
Ty Tyson, the Tiger announcer, announced the batting order for the day, informing the crowd of 11,379 of Gehrig’s voluntary withdrawal from the lineup. The voice from the PA system urged to give the great man a ‘big hand’, and the crowd resounded with a deafening cheer. As he walked back to the Yankee dugout, Gehrig doffed his cap and smiled before shading himself from the appreciative baseball fans.
Earlier that morning, the New York team checked into the Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, off on their first western trip of the still-young 1939 baseball season. Thus far, the Yankees were off to a 5-3 record, tied with Chicago for first place. In those eight games, Gehrig had managed a measly four hits in 28 times at bats, good for a .143 batting average, and only a single RBI. He made contact at the plate, as he only struck out once, though balls that he usually crushed seemed to die in the infield. Players claimed to hear his lungs wheeze and his bones creak as his legs slid – rather than churned – along the base paths. Something was horribly wrong.
Soon after arriving in Detroit from his native Buffalo, NY, Yankee Manager Joe McCarthy was at the cigar counter in the hotel lobby when he was approached by Gehrig. Marse Joe was pulled aside by his first baseman, asking to discuss an important matter with him. Arriving at McCarthy’s room, Gehrig said that he would be taking himself out of the lineup, for the good of the team.
A tearful McCarthy made the announcement to the sportswriters gathered in the hotel lobby. Gehrig followed soon after, claiming that he had come to the decision that past Sunday. He felt that he had not been any good to the team since the season started, and felt it would not be fair to the boys, McCarthy, or himself, to continue. It was stated that he would take some rest until the warmer weather came around, hoping that both his strength and confidence would return. Interestingly enough, Wally Pipp, the very man that Gehrig replaced in the Yankee lineup in 1925, was present in the hotel lobby when the announcements to the press were made. Now a businessman in Grand Rapids, he would be in attendance that afternoon at Briggs Stadium.
Around 1 o’clock, both teams had made it to the ballpark to dress for that day’s game. In the clubhouse, utility infielder Ellsworth ‘Babe’ Dahlgren had quietly been told by Coach Art Fletcher that he would be playing first base that day. On the field, reporters and photographers were everywhere. Gathering around Gehrig after he finished some soft-tossing with Bill Dickey, they snapped photo after photo as Lou watched the team warm-up. Dahlgren, who had also become a central figure in the event, was asked to pose with the great man before the start of the contest.
At that time, it was generally felt around the league that the Yankees were now in a bit of trouble. Not only had the pillar of their great franchise been suffering mightily, but their young star centerfielder Joe DiMaggio was hospitalized for torn leg muscles he had experienced against Washington on the turf in Yankee Stadium a few days prior. Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg was quoted as saying that he felt the Yankee dynasty was “beginning to crumble”.
Despite Greenberg’s proclamation, the game that day was a blow out. In the first inning alone, Detroit pitcher Vernon Kennedy allowed two hits, walked another two, and permitted four runs. Harry Eisenstat, his replacement, fared no better. The left-hander gave up just as many runs before being pulled for a pinch hitter in the third. Taking the mound in the fourth was Jephat Lynn, who while working the entire frame – as well as the fifth and part of the sixth – gave up five runs, including two homers. Rookie Fred Hutchinson was the real Detroit goat, giving up seven runs due to wildness. His season debut must not have been terribly easy, what with being called in with the bases full and his team down by over ten runs. It was not until George Gill came in that the Tigers were able to settle the Yanks down.
The young Dahlgren, making his first start at first base because of the inactive Gehrig, made it a memorable one. Babe drove in a run with a double, had his first Yankee round tripper, and missed two more homers by a matter of feet. Additionally, he made two spectacular plays in the field, including a sensational catch of a Hank Greenberg pop-up. Right fielder George Selkirk hit his second home run, as well as a double, to drive in two. Leftfielder Charlie Keller drove in a whopping six runs with a triple and a home run. Tommy Henrich, who was filling in for an injured DiMaggio in centerfield, homered with two on. Third baseman Red Rolfe doubled twice in the same inning, driving in three runs. New York barraged Detroit for 17 hits, four of which were for home runs, and five others for extra bases. Those hits were good for 35 bases in total. The traffic around the base paths was further congested because of the twelve walks issued by Detroit. In total the Yankees scored 22 runs, a total that not only provided the Tigers with one of their largest margins of defeat in team history, but was only five runs off of an American League mark set in 1933.
Despite a sore arm that prematurely ended his start against the Athletics on Tuesday the week prior, Yankee hurler Red Ruffing coasted to his third straight victory, pitching one-hit ball for six innings. To the accompaniment of sarcastic cheers from the Detroit fans, the right-hander eased off the Tigers in the latter frames, allowing six more hits and the Tigers’ only two runs.
Things in the clubhouse seemed to be normal after the game. With the Red Sox idle that day, the Yankees had regained first place. Players were congratulating themselves on a hard days work. Ruffing was in the corner having ointment rubbed on his arm by the trainer. Lou himself took his time in getting dressed, and would then leave the stadium via taxicab.
He would never play in a professional ball game again.