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

With his teammates and manager Joe McCarthy quietly wondering what was hampering their leader, Gehrig embarked on one last surge of batting wizardry in the final month of the season to propel the Yankees to their third consecutive AL pennant. He managed 24 hits in his final 60 at-bats of 1938 to at least lift his batting average close to the .300 level. On September 27 he hit his 493rd—and final—career home run off Washington knuckleballer Dutch Leonard. When the regular-season ended, Gehrig’s fabulous consecutive game streak was at, 2,122. Despite being a beloved baseball institution, Yankee management coldly cut Gehrig’s annual salary by nearly eight percent for 1939—from $39,000 to $36,000.

Between baseball seasons Gehrig’s physical abilities worsened. A doctor wrongly diagnosed a gall bladder problem that likely could be addressed if Lou moderated his diet. Aware that people were talking about his declining abilities, Gehrig worked diligently in the offseason, exercising outdoors. Gehrig was always a decent ice skater. When the temperature permitted, he skated on the frozen lakes near his Westchester, NY home. Often he could be seen at a public skating facility, the Playland Ice Casino, in Rye, NY, where his presence always drew legions of baseball fans both young and old. A concerned and protective Eleanor was always standing not too far away. Several uncharacteristic falls by Lou both puzzled and frightened her.

When the Yankees’ opened spring training in 1939 in St. Petersburg, FL, Gehrig was noticeably well off form. He batted below .100 in ten exhibition games—a ghastly testament to what was happening to his once-formidable athletic ability. His timing was badly askew. Joe DiMaggio was dumbstruck when he witnessed Gehrig miss 19 consecutive fat fastballs during one batting practice session. “I just have to work harder than ever,” Ray Robinson, Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time, p. 245 Gehrig told reporters who courageously summoned the nerve to ask him about his troubles. Manager McCarthy had a dilemma. Had it been any other player, McCarthy would have pulled him from the lineup without question, but Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak and his exalted position in the sport made such a move terribly difficult. Years later McCarthy recalled, “You could see his reflexes were shot. I feared Lou might get hurt if I didn’t get him out of there.” (“Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech on July 4, 1939,” Charlie Keller, in his first spring training with the Yankees, concurred. He felt Gehrig was going to get hurt just practising. Sometimes Gehrig was unable to raise his hands quick enough to protect himself from his teammates’ throws.

Some sports writers began questioning whether the streak itself was to blame for Gehrig’s perceptible decline, suggesting that an occasional day off might do Gehrig some good. Gehrig scoffed at the idea. “What do you mean about consecutive games? It rains now and then, doesn’t it? I don’t play that day. Isn’t that a day off? What’s the difference between taking the day off or having the day off because it’s raining? Why, I’ve had lots of days off over the years!” (Jim Westwater, “Time to End the Streak,” Baltimore Sun, August 2, 1998 (online archives).)
Gehrig’s physical problems were becoming obvious to everyone, although few people spoke openly about them. When the Yankees were invited to be guests at a pro golf event, Gehrig was in attendance. Instead of wearing spiked shoes to walk the course, as was typical for spectators in those days, Gehrig wore sneakers and noticeably shuffled his feet along the damp grass. The strain of taking normal steps was too much for him. On at least two occasions during spring training that year Gehrig toppled from his stool in the Yankees’ clubhouse. Gehrig was both embarrassed and mystified about what was happening to him, but he was still the New York Yankees’ starting first baseman when the 1939 season began.

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