It was 74 years ago this weekend when one of baseball's greatest diplomats of the game and of human perseverance made one of the most difficult decisions of his life: he chose to do what was best for his team and retired from baseball. Henry Louis Gehrig, the “Iron Horse”, after playing in 2,130 consecutive games for the New York Yankees, would never set foot on the field of play again as the starting first baseman. He was 36 years old, which would normally be considered the downside of any player's career, but in this instance, his career was over and less than two years later, so too would be his life.
Gehrig made his debut for the Yankees in 1925 after Wally Pipp “supposedly” benched himself after suffering a headache. The term took on a life of its own years later, and to be “Wally Pipped” meant to lose your spot and to never get it back. Gehrig spent the next 13 seasons playing a full schedule for the Bronx Bombers, including every World Series game from 1925-1939 that the Yankees were involved in. Not only was Gehrig an extraordinary athlete for being able to play every single day with nagging injuries, bumps, bruises, sprains and the like, but his ability as a hitter and glove man were just as impressive. Gehrig during his run as the starter in New York (he sat the first two full seasons he was in the big leagues), drove in at least 100 runs in each full season in which he played.
In total, the “Iron Horse” was a member of six World Series winning teams with the Yankees, including the 1927 squad, considered by most baseball historians as the greatest single season team of all-time. They were deemed “Murderer's Row” and Gehrig took home the Most Valuable Player award over teammate Babe Ruth. He led the league in runs driven in on five separate occasions, runs scored four times, home runs three times, and batting average once. He won a second MVP award in 1936—winning the coveted Triple Crown after Ruth was gone and a rookie named Joe DiMaggio was manning centerfield. He was elected to the first seven All-Star games ever held, but did not participate in the 1939 Midsummer Classic due to his retirement several weeks prior to the game.
Gehrig began experiencing symptoms of fatigue during the 1938 season, and many around the Yankees' Captain, believed he was wearing down from playing every day of the regular season, every game during the World Series, and barnstorming across the world during the offseason. Gehrig noticed changes in his body and his ability to perform basic baseball functions including a noticeably dramatic drop-off in both his power at the plate and his speed while running the bases. During spring training of 1939, Gehrig collapsed on the field while running the bases during team workouts.
The beginning of the 1939 season was a statistical nightmare of Gehrig, and he hit just, .143 by the end of the season's first month. Reporters, teammates, and Yankees' team management noticed something was wrong with Gehrig. He would hit the ball squarely, and the ball would barely travel out of the infield. His power was gone, but not his batting eye, evidenced by his only striking out once in his first 28 at bats of the season. On April 30th, Gehrig went hitless in four at bats against the Washington Senators. It would be the last time Gehrig was in the Yankees lineup. On May 2nd, Gehrig asked manager Joe McCarthy to remove him from the lineup, ending his consecutive games played streak in Detroit. The public address announcer made it known to the attending crowd that day that for the first time since 1925, Gehrig would not be in the starting lineup for New York. He received a standing ovation from the Tigers faithful.
After his wife Elenor made arrangements with Dr. Charles Mayo of the Mayo Clinic, Gehrig traveled alone to Rochester. The prognosis was grim. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on his 36th birthday. He was given less than three years to live. He briefly returned to the Yankees and continued serving in his role as team captain, which lifted the spirits of his teammates, but he would never again play a single inning of professional baseball. As his health and motor functions continued to decline, Gehrig decided it was time to step away from the game he loved so much.
After retiring from baseball, he took a job as the New York City Parole Commissioner at the urging of Mayor Alphonse LaGuardia. Gehrig insisted that no media attention be given to his work, nor his public appearances around the city. He served in the position until about a month before his death. In an ironic twist of fate, 16 years to the day that he took over for Wally Pipp as the everyday first baseman for the Yankees, Lou Gehrig succumbed to the illness that would later bear his name on June 2nd, 1941.