May 2, 1939: Lou Gehrig Isn’t In The Yankees Lineup Anymore

There were telltale signs in 1938, if people wanted to look for them. Something was troubling Lou Gehrig, the steady, reliable stalwart in Yankee pinstripes who had been guarding first base for New York’s American League baseball club, day in and day out, since June of 1925. Later Gehrig’s widow, Eleanor, sadly recalled, “Somewhere in that creeping mystery of summer Lou lost the power.” (James Lincoln Ray, SABR Biography Project “Lou Gehrig,” SABR.com.)

In his heyday, Lou Gehrig’s batting stroke was the epitome of power. As a high school player Gehrig had driven a ball out of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. While a teammate of Babe Ruth’s, Gehrig typically hit a different style of home run than the Bambino. Ruth’s were usually high majestic arcs. Gehrig’s homers were fast-moving line drives that often thudded into the bleachers. Gehrig’s mother, Christina, who had three other children who did not survive infancy, hypothesized that her beloved boy had been gifted with the power of four men.

In 1938, Gehrig hit 29 home runs, collected 114 RBIs while batting .295. Those would be magnificent numbers for the vast majority of MLB players, but it was a notch or two below what was expected of baseball’s famed Iron Horse. For the first time since 1925 Gehrig’s seasonal batting average dropped below the .300 mark. It was understandable to most folks, though. Gehrig was 35 years old in 1938. The laws of physiology dictate that athletes are on the decline by that age. Gehrig’s subpar season—by his lofty standards, anyway—hardly mattered in the grand scheme of things as his Yankees won 99 games and romped to another American League pennant, 9-1/2 games ahead of their closest pursuers, the Boston Red Sox. In the 1938 World Series, the Yankees trounced the overmatched Chicago Cubs in four straight games, so Gehrig’s lack of power hitting—he managed just four singles in 14 at-bats—was barely noticed. But something was wrong.

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Gehrig’s “iron man” streak had reached 2,000 consecutive games on May 31, 1938, a milestone he quietly took pride in. By the time the streak had reached 2,044 games, Gehrig had left two games early with injuries. An attack of lumbago had caused him to leave a game in Cleveland in the fifth inning. He departed another game in the seventh inning after injuring his thumb while fielding a low throw. Gehrig was not hitting, which he found worrisome; slumps always bothered Gehrig. Teammates assured him that his bat would get hot at the same time the weather did. Entering the final two months of the season, Gehrig was batting in the low .270s.

Sportswriters could see Gehrig was not quite his old self. Jim Kahn of the New York Sun declared, “I’ve seen players go overnight, but I think there is something deeper than that in Lou’s case. He takes the same old swing, but the ball doesn’t go anywhere.”(James Lincoln Ray, SABR Biography Project “Lou Gehrig,” SABR.com.) In some cases he wasn’t taking his old swing. Gehrig briefly tried using a lighter, 33-ounce bat. It made no difference, so he returned to his 36-ounce model. Then he began punching at the ball instead of taking his usual powerful swings. During a game versus the Chicago White Sox, Gehrig bunted with two runners on base. No one in the press box could recall Gehrig ever doing that before. An amazed Red Rennie of the Herald-Tribune wrote, “Gehrig bunting in such circumstances was as shocking as it would have been to see Jack Dempsey bringing into the ring with him a little sweater he was knitting.” Ray Robinson, Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time, p. 237.

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