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

The Yankees began their schedule at home versus the Boston Red Sox on April 20. As Gehrig walked to the plate for his first plate appearance of 1939 he was met with a tremendous round of applause. The Yankee faithful, fully aware of Lou’s awful spring training, were pulling for him. He hit a line drive to right field that was caught by a rookie making his MLB debut named Ted Williams. Two Yankee runners were stranded. In the fifth inning Boston pitcher Lefty Grove, a surly man who possessed absolutely no sentimentality, intentionally walked Joe DiMaggio to face the fading Gehrig. Gehrig hit into a double play. The Yankees won anyway, 2-0. The next day Gehrig got a hit, but he made an egregious fielding error on an ordinary ground ball. After eight games, the Yankees were atop the AL standings, but their first baseman was batting an anemic .143. Although he was just seven homers short of an impressive milestone, nobody was predicting when Gehrig’s 500th career home run might come. His slugging power was only a memory. The end was near.

In a loss to the Washington Senators on April 29, Gehrig reacted slowly on a ground ball back to reliever Johnny Murphy. Gehrig’s delay turned what should have been a routine out into an unacceptably close play at first base. When Murphy kindly commented, “Nice play, Lou,” Gehrig knew for certain he was now a liability to his team. In his final game, on Sunday, April 30 versus Washington, Gehrig went 0-for-4. John Kieran of the New York Times wrote that Gehrig looked like “a man trying to lift heavy trunks into a truck.” The Yankees left New York for a western road trip. Gehrig’s consecutive game streak stood at 2,130. The team’s first stop would be Detroit.

The Yankees arrived at the Book-Cadillac hotel but without manager McCarthy. With no game scheduled for Monday, he had gone to his home in Buffalo to tend to some personal business. When McCarthy arrived at the hotel early on Tuesday, May 2, Lou was waiting for him in the lobby. McCarthy suspected what was coming. Gehrig bluntly told his manager that he was pulling himself out of the lineup for the good of the team. McCarthy told Gehrig that he’d pencil in Babe Dahlgren at first base for that afternoon’s game, but the position would still be his whenever he wanted it back. Coach Art Fletcher informed Dahlgren that he would be playing in place of Gehrig. A torn Dahlgren was excited about playing, but was mortified by the realization that he was the man who would be replacing the immensely popular Iron Horse. Dahlgren worried that he would be perceived as a villain.

Gehrig took the lineup card to home plate as part of his usual duties as the Yankees’ captain. A seldom seen photo of the event shows the three-man umpiring crew plus Tiger manager Del Baker with stunned looks on their faces. When the crowd of 11,379 at Briggs Stadium realized that Gehrig was not in the Yankee lineup, they saluted him with a heartfelt ovation. Gehrig politely tipped his cap and returned to the Yankees’ dugout. Gehrig stayed on the bench the whole game in New York’s 22-2 drubbing of the Tigers. The game was never in doubt. The Yankees scored six runs in the top of the first inning and did not look back. Dahlgren, who batted eighth, had a home run and a double in five at-bats. The decidedly one-sided win was not the major story, of course. It was Gehrig’s absence from the Yankees’ lineup. James P. Dawson, the esteemed baseball scribe for the New York Times, wrote,

Lou Gehrig’s matchless record of uninterrupted play in American League championship games, stretched over 15 years and through 2,130 straight contests, came to an end today.
The mighty iron man, who at his peak hit 49 home runs in a season five years ago, took himself out of action before the Yanks marched on Briggs Stadium for their first game against the Tigers this year.
With the consent of manager Joe McCarthy, Gehrig removed himself because he, better than anyone else perhaps, recognized his competitive decline and was frankly aware of the fact he was doing the Yankees no good defensively or on the attack…

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