The Iron Horse Benched Himself

On this day in 1939, before a game against the Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig benches himself for poor play, ending his streak of consecutive games played at 2,130. The “Iron Horse” was unknowingly suffering at the time from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

Gehrig’s baseball career spanned 17 seasons at first base with the Yankees, from 1923 until 1939. Gehrig was renowned for his prowess as a hitter and for his durability, which earned him his nickname, and his consecutive game record which stood for 56 years. He was an All-Star seven consecutive times, a Triple Crown winner once, an American League (AL) Most Valuable Player twice, and a member of six World Series champion teams.

Gehrig had a career .340 batting average, .632 slugging average, and a .447 on base average. He hit 493 home runs and had 1,995 runs batted in (RBI). In 1939, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and was the first MLB player to have his uniform number (4) retired by a team.

In spring training and April ’39, Gehrig’s legendary power and prowess were noticeably absent; his statistics were the worst of his career, with one RBI and a .143 batting average. Fans and the press openly speculated on Gehrig’s abrupt decline. On that fateful day at Briggs Stadium, Gehrig, as Yankee captain, scratched himself and took the lineup card out to the shocked umpires before the game, ending the fourteen-year streak.

Before the game began, the stadium announcer told fans, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time Lou Gehrig’s name will not appear on the Yankee lineup in 2,130 consecutive games.” The Tiger’s fans gave Gehrig a standing ovation while he sat on the bench with tears in his eyes.

He stayed with the Yankees as team captain for the rest of the season but never played in a major league game again; Gehrig’s subsequent retirement was announced on June 21, 1939. At a July 4th double-header, parting ceremonies were tearfully conducted between games, which the Times described as “perhaps as colorful and dramatic a pageant as ever was enacted on a baseball field (as) 61,808 fans thundered a hail and farewell.”

Famously referring to himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Gehrig characteristically tried to abjure attention, thanking and praising his teammates, management, parents and his devoted wife Eleanor, of whom he said, “It’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed–that’s the finest I know. So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. –Thank you.”

Gehrig took a public service job as New York City Parole Commissioner, and passed away in his home June 2, 1941. Years later, Eleanor, who devoted her next 43 years to supporting ALS research, stated, “I had the best of it. I would not have traded two minutes of my life with that man for 40 years with another.”

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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