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The Saddest Day in Sports- The Lou Gehrig Story

Posted by on May 3, 2012 at 12:50 AM

May 2, 1939 started just as any other morning in Detroit, Michigan. The powerful New York Yankees were in town to play the hometown Detroit Tigers in an early season matchup that would determine the way the American League pennant race of 1939 would be played out. For one player, however, May 2nd would be a day unlike any for the previous 14 and one half years. Let's go back to a beautiful June day in 1925. Lou Gehrig, the young strapping first baseman from Columbia college was performing his pre-game warmups much as he had done since being called up by the Yankees two years previously. Gehrig had spent his fair share of time on the bench watching veteran first baseman Wally Pipp handle the first baseman duties with consistent, if not spectacular fashion. On this particular day after warmups, manager Miller Huggins decided to replace the slumping Pipp with young Gehrig. The previous day Gehrig had pinch hit late in the game, so in reality this was Gehrig's second game in a row. Amazingly, and unprecedented in major league baseball history, from that June day in 1925 to the May morning in Detroit, Michigan almost 14 years later, Lou Gehrig had not missed a game. Through broken bones and illness, pulled muscles and sprained ankles, he got into every game. He cruised past the current leader in consecutive games played Everett Scott, who had played in 1307 consecutive games from 1916 to 1925, and continued playing. One tremendously inspirational item for me, was that Gehrig didn't just play, he played amazingly. Lou Gehrig hit .340 over his career(11th all time). He slugged 493 homers and drove in 1995 runs ( still fourth all time- 73 years after he retired). His on base percentage(walks plus hits) was .447 (fifth all time- to give you something modern to compare to - Albert Pujols current on base percentage is .420). He played much of his career in the shadow of teammate Babe Ruth, but was American League MVP in 1927 and 1936. He won the Triple Crown which means he led the league in home runs, runs batted in and average in 1934. It has not been accomplished in the major leagues since 1967. In 1969, the Baseball Writers of America voted him the best 1st baseman of all time. In 1999, when the public voted on Major League Baseball's All-Century Team, he was the leading vote getter. In 1938, things began to change for Gehrig. An incredibly consistent performer during his career, Gehrigs average dropped to .295 with 29 homers and 114 runs batted in. For almost any other player, this would be considered an incredible year, but for Gehrig, it was a drop of almost 60 points from his 1937 average and during the World Series in 1938, his power deserted him, with just four singles in 14 at bats. During spring training 1939, Gehrig was sluggish and his more than adequate fielding skills had diminished to the near embarrassing. As an inspirational leader to his team, Gehrig's pride was being pressed to allow this type of performance. After barely making a routine play, one of his teammates shouted "Nice play, Lou!" For the excellent Gehrig, this was not acceptable. Throughout April, Gehrig struggled. He ended the month hitting only .143 with one run batted in. For a man that averaged almost one run batted in per game during his career, he had come to a realization. Whatever was wearing him out was going to win, temporarily. Before the game on May 2, 1939, Gehrig left the team hotel, stopped for a coffee at a local cafe and entered Briggs Stadium. He approached manager Joe McCarthy and said that he was benching himself "for the good of the team". McCarthy asked if he was sure and Gehrig nodded. As team captain, it was Gehrig himself that slowly walked to home plate to exchange line-up cards with the Detroit team and with the umpires. The scene at home plate was emotional as at the same time as line-up cards were being exchanged, the public address announcer was handed the following announcement: " Today, for the first time in 2130 games, Lou Gehrig will not be playing at first base for New York today." Instantly, the crowd of 11,379 in attendance stood and applauded for the Yankee great. At that moment, he was not an opposing player, but an inspiration. Gehrig went to the bench and as the bottom of the first began, with tears in his eyes, he watched young Babe Dahlgren take his spot in the Yankee infield. Joe McCarthy had made it plain to both Gehrig and his replacement Dahlgren that first base was Lou's when he was ready for it. However, it would never be his again. Not for a single game. The day Gehrig took himself out of the lineup at Briggs Stadium in Detroit was to be his last game. As his strength continued to drain, he set up an appointment at the famous Mayo Brothers Clinic in Minnesota. There on June 19, 1939, he received the diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). His baseball career was over. There are conflicting reports about how much Gehrig, or his wife Eleanor knew about what a diagnosis of ALS meant. He officially retired on July 4th 1939 during an elaborate ceremony between games of a doubleheader. You can YouTube portions of the speech he gave that day or see it dramatized in the excellent movie Pride Of The Yankees starring Gary Cooper. It is one of the bravest moments in sports. Here is a highlight:

During the reest of 1939 and 1940, Lou was selected as a Parole Commissioner for the New York Police Department. Gehrig dutifully did his job helping rehabilitate youth rather than just punish them, until his health prohibited further work. Sadly, Lou Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, sixteen years to the day that he replaced Wally Pipp at first base for the Yankees. He was only 37. The disease that struck him down in his prime is now best known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. But it is not for illness, but for bravery in the face of illness that he will be known. His legacy will live on as long as boys and girls play the game.

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