"I’m taking myself out of the lineup" Lou Gehrig told New York Yankees manager Joe McCarthy on May 2, 1939, when the Bronx Bombers visited the Detroit Tigers, ending one of the greatest streaks in Major League Baseball history.
It took a mysterious illness to end what The Iron Horse had begun nearly 14 years earlier on June 2, 1925, when the first baseman famously filled in for Wally Pipp (another story altogether).
To that point in the young 1939 season, Gehrig batted a meager 4-for-28 through 8 games. Almost all bats go cold for a time but something wasn’t right, and the career .340-hitter knew it.
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"I told him it would be as he wished" McCarthy said of Gehrig’s decision to sit out, ending his run at 2,130 consecutive games played. "Like everybody else I’m sorry to see it happen. I told him not to worry. Maybe the warm weather will bring him around."
The full photo showing a resting Lou Gehrig on May 2, 1939.
The weather turned for the better but Gehrig’s condition, later diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known colloquially as Lou Gehrig’s disease, did not.
"I decided last Sunday night on this move," Gehrig later revealed of his decision. "I haven’t been a bit of a good to the team since the season started. It would not be fair to the boys, to Joe or to the baseball public for me to try going on. In fact, it would not be fair to myself."
As the team’s captain, Gehrig delivered the lineup card that Tuesday at Briggs Stadium to the umpires himself. Babe Dahlgren was penciled in at first base.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Detroit’s game announcer intoned, Lou Gehrig’s consecutive streak of 2,130 games played has ended."
Portrait of New York Yankees first baseman, Lou Gehrig circa 1930.
Gehrig was inducted into the Hall of Fame by special election in 1939 at age 35, finishing with these remarkable figures over his 17-year career: 2,721 hits, .340 batting average, 493 home runs, 23 career grand slams, 1,995 RBI a 1.080 OPS and two MVP awards (1926, 1936).
Though Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed Gehrig’s consecutive-games played streak, the widely respected Gehrig still stands as a legend of the game who transcended baseball with his emotional farewell on July 4, 1939, when he delivered the famous "Luckiest Man" speech.
Dahlgren and McCarthy were so concerned with Gehrig’s condition at the time of his address that they were prepared to catch him should he fall.
"If Lou starts to fall, catch him," Dahlgren said McCarthy told him. "I watched him closely as he gave his speech. It looked like he was wearing a motor in the back. His rear end was just trembling."
The game of baseball is lucky to have had him. The New York native and son of German immigrants survived only two years longer.
First base at Yankees Stadium remains hallowed ground and the Yankees’ captaincy high honor. There have been only six captains since Gehrig.
When Derek Jeter broke Gehrig’s record for hits in 2009, he said "It’s just kind of mind-boggling to know my name is next to his."
The captain that preceded Jeter, Don Mattingly, recalled in 1989: "I remember the first time I played first base at Yankee Stadium thinking I was in the same place Lou Gehrig played. It almost gave me chills."
Former teammates and Hall of Fame baseball players Lou Gehrig (L) and Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees embrace on the field on Lou Gehrig day on July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.