By Glen Sparks
Lou Gehrig felt tired mid-way through the 1938 season.
Surely, no one knew exactly what that meant at the time. Gehrig had played every game for the New York Yankees since June 1, 1925.
So, Gehrig felt tired in the summer of ’38. So, what? He kept playing; he always did. He played through several fractures over the years and an attack of lumbago, i.e., back pain.
Every season, Gehrig put up incredible numbers. The Big Apple native blasted more than 40 home runs five times. He drove in at least 140 runs nine times and also hit better than .330 nine times. Once (in 1927), he drove in 173 runs. Then (in 1930), he did it again. Then (in 1931), Gehrig set his career mark for RBI in one season. He brought home 185. 185? Incredible.
In 1938, Gehrig hit 29 homers, drove in 114 runs and hit .295. Just about any first baseman might take those numbers and run happily home with them. But, not Lou Gehrig. The year before, the first baseman hit 37 home runs and drove in 158. He batted a healthy .351, leading the American League in on-base percentage (.474) and OPS (1.116).
Gehrig felt tired in the summer of 1938. And nothing was ever the same after that.
“I don’t know why,” Gehrig said, regarding his fatigue. “I just couldn’t get going again.”
Thirty-five years old, Gehrig reported to spring training in 1939. He didn’t hit a single home run in any game. One time, he collapsed at the Yanks’ spring training home, Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg.
Gehrig went north with the team. He played eight games and batted .143 (4-for-28). He didn’t hit a home run; he didn’t even knock an extra-base hit.
The Iron Horse played in his 2,130th consecutive game on April 30. No one had ever done that. Everett Scott held the previous record. He played in 1,307 straight games (June 20, 1916 through May 5, 1925) for the Boston Red Sox and Yankees.
Gehrig walked up to Yankees skipper Joe McCarthy on May 2. “I’m benching myself, Joe,” Gehrig said. The visiting fans at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium gave Gehrig a standing ovation. Gehrig shed some tears in the dugout. He never played in another game.
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told Gehrig that he had something called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The prognosis: paralysis, difficulty in breathing, difficulty in swallowing. Mentally, he would be fine.
Gehrig played parts of 17 seasons. He retired with 493 home runs, 1,995 RBI and a .340 batting average, with a .447 on-base percentage and .632 slugging percentage.
On July 4, 1939, Gehrig, speaking in his thick New York accent, told fans at Yankee Stadium, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” The fans gave their dying hero a two-minute standing ovation. Babe Ruth gave his former Murderers’ Row teammate a big hug.
The Baseball Writers of America voted Gehrig into the Hall of Fame on Dec. 7, 1939, skipping the usual five-year waiting period following retirement.
Gehrig died at 10:10 p.m. on June 2, 1941, at the age of 37. It was 16 years, plus one day, after his consecutive games streak had started.