CHARLOTTE, NC – On May 2, 1939, New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig went to manager Joe McCarthy and benched himself for the “good of the team.” That was the first time he’d made that request in 2,130 consecutive games. Thus ending the streak.
An astonishing consecutive game streak placed one of the most durable and popular players in Major League Baseball’s long and colorful history firmly in the record books.
The streak, and the day it ended
Affectionately known as the “Iron Horse,” Lou Gehrig remained in uniform as team captain on the bench from the day the streak ended. But he never played in another game. His record stood for 56 years until Cal Ripken, Jr. eclipsed it in 1995. An equally liked player for the Baltimore Orioles, Ripken played in 2,632 straight games.
Given the way MLB plays the game today, chances remain good that Ripken’s mark can hang on to that record forever.
Gehrig’s march to immortality began in June 1925. That was when slumping regular first baseman, Wally Pipp, came out of the lineup because of a headache. That headache consigned Pipp to the dugout bench in short order. No matter he once started as first baseman for the New Yankees. Pipp’s career remains no more than an answer to a trivia question for MLB fans today.
How the streak gradually drew to a close
- Perhaps even lesser-known about Lou Gehrig is that he kept the streak intact on several occasions either by making an appearance as a pinch-hitter or through fortunate timing. For example:
- On April 23, 1933, Washington Senators pitcher Earl White hit Gehrig in the head with a pitch. Although almost knocked unconscious, Gehrig remained in the game. Note: It would be nearly a decade before batting helmets would become standard equipment. In 1933 nobody wore one.
- Moving to June 14, 1933, Gehrig was ejected from a game, along with manager Joe McCarthy. But he had already been at-bat.
- In a June 1934 exhibition game, Gehrig was hit by a pitch just above the right eye and was knocked unconscious. News reports claimed that Gehrig was out for five minutes. He left the game but was in the lineup the next day. Note: MLB did not introduce helmets with at least one earflap until Jim Lemon wore one in 1960. However not until 1964 did Tony Gonzalez of the Philadelphia Phillies use a pre-molded flap. Today they are mandatory.
- On July 13, 1934, Gehrig suffered a “lumbago attack” and had to be assisted off the field. For the next day’s game, he was listed as “shortstop,” batting lead-off. In his only plate appearance, he singled. The team promptly replaced him with a pinch-runner in order to rest his back. He never actually took the field. Some speculate that his lumbago illness was the first symptom of the debilitating disease that eventually took his life.
- The most controversial move to keep Gehrig’s streak alive came when Yankees general manager Ed Barrow postponed a game as a rainout on a day when Gehrig was sick with the flu, even though it wasn’t raining.
While the lumbago incident may have been the initial step in Gehrig’s eventual diagnosis, the two “beanballs” were more likely responsible. Whatever the case, the streak had ended.
A curse of the athletic?
Since the day doctors diagnosed Lou Gehrig the malady that ended his life, one unusual fact seems to hold true. The fatal disease so familiarly associated with his name, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, manifests in higher percentages of athletes and military personnel than in most other segments of society. Perhaps due to higher rates of concussion or other types of trauma, whatever the cause of ALS may appear difficult to control or contain thanks to the erratic way it spreads.
May is ALS Awareness Month.
This month, we seek donations in support of the Joe Martin ALS Foundation in the on-going battle against this debilitating disease. If you would like to donate, GoFundMe will match contributions made to #GivingTuesdayNOW on gifts made between now and May 10th. Just click on the GoFundMe link.
The end for the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth”
On the Fourth of July, 1939, a weary and humble Lou Gehrig stood at home plate before a sellout crowd in Yankee Stadium for the last time. Only this time he spoke from his heart rather than with his bat.
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
Lou Gehrig died in his sleep on June 2, 1941. He was only 37 years old.
As a lifelong lover of baseball, I have often wondered how a dying man could describe himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth?
Looking back, Gehrig and I did have a few things in common. We both loved baseball, we were both left-handed and we both played first base. Both of us also played at Al Lang Field in St Petersburg, FL. Better yet, together we combined to hit 499 home runs (Gehrig hit 493 in the Majors, while I hit 6 in the Minors).
And, finally one day, I, too, will succumb to ALS: the very disease that also bears Lou Gehrig’s name.
Oddly enough there is, for me, solace and comfort in that. For now, I truly understand what Lou Gehrig meant.
— Headline image: Lou and Eleanor Gehrig’s headstone in Kensico Cemetery.
(The year of his birth was erroneously inscribed as “1905”). Via Wikipedia entry on Lou Gehrig. GNU 1.2 license.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.