May 2, 1939: “I’m benching myself, Joe… for the good of the team.” With those words to New York Yankee manager Joe McCarthy, Lou Gehrig ended a spectacular run of playing in 2130 consecutive major league baseball games. It was a record that would stand for 56 years until Cal Ripken, Jr. bested it in 1995.
Born in 1901 to German immigrant parents living in Upper Manhattan, the young Gehrig developed into a star athlete playing both football and baseball. He was strong and powerful. He attended Columbia University at the urging of his dominant mother so that he could become an engineer. However, while playing baseball for Columbia, Gehrig was spotted by a scout for the New York Yankees in 1923 who noted Gehrig’s ability to hit especially long home runs. The Yankees signed him to a contract in June of that year. Gehrig never looked back.
His famous streak began in early June, 1925 when then-Yankee manager Miller Huggins replaced the struggling first baseman Wally Pipp with Gehrig. Thereafter, Gehrig would not relinquish his role as a starting player for the next 14 years. He played through fractures, lumbago, various sicknesses, and even being struck in the head by a ball. He would never complain.
Gehrig’s abilities on the diamond were simply amazing. He was a career .340 hitter. He amassed 493 career home runs and hit 23 grand slams. He was an astounding clutch hitter. And he was a great fielder as well.
Stated simply, Lou Gehrig was pure grace. Despite his incredible abilities, he remained modest, quiet, and fun-loving. He was a family man with varied interests. He loved going to the Met to see operas, but he literally had to disguise himself for fear that his teammates would make fun of him. He loved to travel, fish, and he especially loved children.
In the middle of the 1938 season, Gehrig began to feel noticeably more tired during and after each game. Still, his hitting abilities, when compared to other ball players, was excellent — averaging .295 and hitting 29 homers. Nonetheless, these stats were low for Lou. But by 1939, things felt noticeably worse for Lou and the fans began to take notice. He was in a gradual physical decline. After one month into the season and batting only .143 with no home runs, that was enough.
Gehrig immediately made arrangements to go the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to find out what was wrong. His diagnosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), came in mid-June 1939. He wrote to his wife, Eleanor,
[t]here isn’t any cure… there are very few of these cases. It is probably caused by some germ…Never heard of transmitting it to mates… There is a 50–50 chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years. Playing is out of the question…
He immediately retired, although he dressed out in pinstripes and was present in the Yankee dugout for the remainder of the 1939 season. He knew he was dying. But, he refused to feel sorry for himself. Later that year, the Baseball Writers Association elected him to Baseball’s Hall of Fame, waiving the normal 5 year waiting period.
Although Gehrig received many lucrative offers after his retirement, the only one that he accepted was that from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. It was a job as New York City’s Parole Commissioner and it appealed to Gehrig because it centered on public service. Gehrig dove into the job like he did everything else; however, he fell into rapid physical decline and by mid-1941 he quietly resigned. He died one month later, June 2, 1941 (16 years to-the-day when he became the regular starting player for the Yankees) at the young age of 39.
For many, he is remembered because of the disease that bears his name; yet, it was his personal qualities, while in life, that make him truly special. I could go on and on about Gehrig (and maybe I already have!), but I think everyone here gets the picture. Perhaps the movie Pride of the Yankees where Gary Cooper’s portrayed Gehrig was misnamed. Maybe it should have been named the Pride of Our Nation.