The Iron Horse’s Last Game
April 30, 1939
“You have to [take the blame]. What are you going to do — admit to yourself that the pitchers have you on the point of surrender? You can’t do that … If you are not hitting, the fault is yours.” — Lou Gehrig, on slumps
Lou Gehrig was not hitting in the spring of 1939, but the fault was most definitely not his. Nor could the American League‘s pitching corps claim responsibility for the Iron Horse’s decline. In the twilight of his career, Gehrig had fallen prey to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — as a result, a task as simple as donning the Yankee pinstripes had become as hard for Gehrig to handle as a Bob Feller fastball.
To all attending the Yankees spring training camp in St. Petersburg, it was clear that something was seriously wrong with their thirty-five-year-old first baseman; most blamed it on old age. “On eyewitness testimony alone,” wrote Joe Williams of the New York Telegram in mid-March, “the verdict must be that of a battle-scarred veteran falling apart.” At one point, Gehrig was thrown nineteen fastballs in a row — and still hit nothing but air. On the basepaths, teammate Tommy Henrich remembered, “it looked like he was trying to run uphill.” More disturbing were Gehrig’s troubles off the field; sudden falls were becoming common, even when trying to tie his shoelaces.
Refusing to let even a mysterious illness stand in his way, Gehrig remained determined to stay in the Yankee lineup. The proud slugger had not missed a game since Wally Pipp took his fateful day off in 1925. But one telling at-bat on Opening Day signaled the end of Gehrig’s illustrious career. In the fifth inning, Lefty Grove — the legendary Red Sox hurler who had once called the Iron Horse the toughest man he’d ever faced — intentionally walked Joe DiMaggio to face his humbled nemesis. Gehrig weakly grounded into a double play.
Gehrig held out hope through long hours of extra practice that he could beat the as-yet undiagnosed malady, but he could not. His finely-tuned body was failing him; his muscles were simply refusing to listen to his brain’s commands. A week into the season, Gehrig had driven in just one run and his batting average was well below .200. Each of his four hits were singles.
The eighth game of the season proved to be his last. Three Senators pitchers held Gehrig hitless in four at-bats; even the most routine plays tested the limits of his once-graceful body. When Gehrig dropped an easy toss to first in the early innings, only the generosity of the official scorer saved him from his third error of the young season.
Washington’s last out in the top of the ninth was an easy grounder to pitcher Johnny Murphy, who flipped the ball to first base. Slowly, Gehrig hobbled to the bag but made the catch. “Nice play,” called Murphy, in a tone more sympathetic than malicious. But Gehrig recognized the cruel irony. His play was hurting the team and insulting his pride, and it was time to call it quits.
That out ended Gehrig’s remarkable 2,130-game playing streak, a mournful coda to a towering career. At Gehrig’s request, manager Joe McCarthy’s lineup card for the Yankees’ next game at Tiger Stadium featured Babe Dahlgren at first base. The Iron Horse carried the bad news to the umpires. “I can’t hit and I can’t field,” a teary Gehrig explained later. As the Yankees demolished the Tigers 22-2, Dahlgren asked Gehrig if he wanted to return. “They don’t need me out there at all,” Gehrig replied. He never played again.
Out of respect to his fallen star, McCarthy asked Gehrig to deliver the lineup before each game, escorted on the short walk by a Yankee employee. Two months later, Gehrig was honored by the Yankees and delivered perhaps the most famous speech in baseball history. “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” he told the crowd. “I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.” Just two years later — less than a month shy of his thirty-eighth birthday and exactly sixteen years after he took Pipp’s place at first base — the Iron Horse passed away.