In a close game on April 30, 1939, the Washington Senators beat the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium 3-2. No one knew at the time that this game was legendary first baseman Lou Gehrig’s final consecutive game played.
After taking over for star first baseman Wally Pipp, Gehrig alongside legendary outfielder Babe Ruth, helped form the eventual Murderers War that helped the Yankees win seven World Series. While Gehrig was never the biggest name on the team, playing with the likes of Ruth and later Joe DiMaggio, Gehrig had an incredible career, making it to six all-star games from 1933 to 1938, along with receiving two American League MVPs, three-time AL home run crowns and was a five-time RBI leader.
Two years after winning MVP in 1938, Gehrig had a noticeable drop in his stats compared to his usual standards. He had a batting average of 0.295 with 114 RBIs, 0.523 slugging percentage, 170 hits and 29 home runs. While these numbers were not bad, they were considerably down from just a season before when Gehrig put up a 0.351 batting average with 158 RBIs, 0.643 slugging percentage, 200 hits and 37 home runs. Gehrig said in an interview that he was tired midseason and he could not play at his same level in the second half of the year.
In 1939, everyone could see that something was seriously wrong with Gehrig. During spring training, he was struggling and no longer had the power in his bat he was famous for. This carried into the regular season, wherein the eight games he played he had an abysmal 0.143 batting average and just four hits, with no RBIs or home runs. While his vision for the ball was still there, as he only struck out one time in 1939, his power and speed were weakening, as he went hitless five out of the eight games he played, including his final game.
On May 2, 1939, Gehrig’s streak ended after he voluntarily benched himself. Since he was the Yankees captain, Gehrig was the one to take up the lineup card that benched him and end his 14-year streak. After he took himself out, Gehrig’s condition kept deteriorating, and his wife, Eleanor, brought him to the Mayo Clinic for a six-day evaluation by Dr. Charles William Mayo.
On Gehrig’s 36th birthday, June 19, 1939, the Mayo Clinic gave Gehrig devastating news. He was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or as it is commonly referred to, ALS. ALS is a disease that causes humans to lose function throughout their bodies and eventually leads to death. To this day the disease is incurable. Two days later, Gehrig officially retired from baseball. On July 4, 1939, during Gehrig’s retirement ceremony he gave his famous retirement speech.
“For the past two weeks, you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Gehrig said.
On June 2, 1941, Gehrig died at his home in the Bronx, New York. Thousands came to mourn Gehrig’s passing, including his teammate Ruth who openly wept in front of the casket. In New York and other baseball parks, the teams flew the American flag at half-staff in remembrance of Gehrig.
Gehrig’s record of 2,130 straight games played held for 56 years until September 6, 1995, when Baltimore Orioles star shortstop Cal Ripkin Jr. not only broke the record with 2,131 games but blew it out of the water by the end of his career with at 2,632.
After Gehrig passed, ALS became known to the public as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Starting in 2021, every year on June 2 the MLB celebrates Lou Gehrig’s Day to celebrate both one of the greatest players of all time and also bring awareness to ALS with the hope that one day a cure can be found.