On May 2, 1939, New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig benches himself for poor play and ends his streak of consecutive games played at 2,130. “The Iron Horse” was suffering at the time from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
Henry Louis Gehrig was born June 19, 1903, in New York, New York, the only child of German immigrants to survive childhood illness. His doting parents were primarily interested in education, not sports, and he attended Columbia University on a football scholarship and studied engineering. After his freshman year, Gehrig played for New York Giants Manager John McGraw in a summer league under the name Henry Lewis; he lost a year of eligibility at Columbia when his ruse was discovered. Gehrig was then signed by a Yankee scout while playing first base at Columbia, much to the consternation of Giants fans who believed their skipper had let the talented slugger get away. Gehrig joined the Yankees in 1923, but he didn’t see any action until 1925, when he backed up star first baseman Wally Pipp. According to legend, Gehrig stepped in at first base when Pipp benched himself with a headache, and Pipp never made it back on to the field. Gehrig didn’t miss a game for the next 13 years. To this day, to be “Wally Pipped” is to be replaced for good.
Gehrig’s offensive output was as extraordinary as his consecutive games streak. The left-handed slugger led the American League in RBIs five times, driving in at least 100 runs 13 years in a row. He led the AL in home runs three times, led in runs four times and led the league in hitting once. In the Yankees first golden era, Gehrig batted cleanup, right after Babe Ruth, the bigger star of the two. It was Gehrig, however, who was named American League MVP in 1927, on a Yankee team considered the greatest team in history; he won the award again in 1936, another championship year for the Yankees. In all, Gehrig won six World Series titles with the Yankees.
Gehrig began to experience symptoms of ALS during the 1938 season, but doctors initially struggled to diagnose him. He played the first eight games of 1939, removing himself mid-game after being congratulated for a routine play at first base. He sat the next day, ending his streak at 2,130 games played. He never played again.
On July 4, 1939, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium. With over 60,000 fans in the stands and his former teammates there to honor him, Gehrig was overcome by emotion, and his legs shook from his developing paralysis. Gehrig stared hard at the ground, unable to speak, until his longtime manager Joe McCarthy and teammate Babe Ruth encouraged him. Then, in gratitude for his great career, and knowing he was dying from an unknown disease, he said: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Lou Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, with his wife Eleanor by his side.