Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Iron Horse

Portrait of Lou Gehrig by Charles Conlon
On this day in baseball history:

May 2, 1939, Briggs Stadium, Detroit- The beginning of the end came a few days earlier after a routine ground ball. The first baseman struggled to get to the ball, then flipped it over to the pitcher Johnny Murphy covering first base. “Good play big guy”, Murphy said to his teammate. It occurred to Lou Gehrig that he was being patted on the back for making a play he used to be able to make in his sleep, but now was an effort. Gehrig had been declining for a few years, perhaps that case of lumbago he suffered back in 1934 was an early sign but no one knows for sure. His collapsing at spring training earlier that year was certainly an indication of what was to come.

But up until that day in Detroit when he told his manager Joe McCarthy that he was taking himself out of the lineup, Gehrig had played an astounding 2,130 consecutive games, earning him the nickname, The Iron Horse. In his prime, getting beaned by a pitch and rendered unconscious for five minutes didn't keep him out of the next game. Neither did that excruciating case of lumbago, nor the several fractures he sustained during his career, confirmed by the numbers of X-rays taken when the doctors were trying to find out what was wrong with him.

Everybody knows the rest of the story. The doctors at the Mayo Clinic discovered that Gehrig had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease of the central nervous system that would take his life two years later.

Lou Gehrig Day
Yankee Stadium
July 4, 1939
July 4, Yankee Stadium- Gehrig would not play another game after that day in Detroit but would remain on the bench for the rest of the season serving as the team captain. Independence Day would be “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” in New York. The ceremony took place between the games of a double header. Babe Ruth came back to his old digs to pay tribute to his friend. Mayor LaGuardia gave a speech, as did the Postmaster General. Gehrig gave his famous “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech and there was not a dry eye in the house.

Perhaps the most touching moment however came when Joe McCarthy holding back the tears, spoke directly to his stricken player and said: was a sad day in the life of everyone who knew you when you came into my hotel room in Detroit and told me you were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God man you were never that.

On September 1st of that year, Hitler invaded Poland; two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany and the world would never again be the same. Even though the War was still a couple years away for most Americans, winning the World Series that year by sweeping the Reds, must have seemed quite empty indeed to Yankee fans.

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