The Moment Lou Gehrig Stepped Down “For The Good Of The Team”

The Story Of The End Of Lou Gehrig’s Consecutive Game Streak – May 2, 1939

Yankee captain Lou Gehrig stuns Tigers manager Del Baker, home plate umpire Steve Basil and umpires Red Ornsby and Bill Summers as Gehrig informs them he has benched himself.

Yankee captain Lou Gehrig stuns Tigers manager Del Baker, home plate umpire Steve Basil and umpires Red Ornsby and Bill Summers as Gehrig informs them he has benched himself. (photo AP)

Almost everyone knows something about Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, and his consecutive game playing streak. But you’ve probably never seen the dreaded moment when Gehrig took himself out of the lineup ending his streak, except by seeing actor Gary Cooper do it in the famous 1942 movie The Pride of the Yankees.

This photograph above shows that actual moment that occurred 75 years ago today.

Since June 1, 1925 Lou Gehrig had appeared in 2,130 straight games over the past fourteen seasons with the Yankees. Gehrig played with sprains, concussions, back spasms, broken bones and illnesses that would have had a lesser man take at least a day off, go on the disabled list or convalesce in a hospital. But Gehrig didn’t just play. He played exceptionally, putting up outstanding numbers offensively and defensively while always conducting himself with grace and humility on and off the field.

So on Tuesday, May 2, 1939 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, nothing seemed out of the ordinary when Yankee captain Lou Gehrig came to home plate to deliver the starting lineup card.

But earlier in the locker room in a private talk, Gehrig informed Yankees manager Joe McCarthy that he was removing himself from the lineup because he “wasn’t doing the team any good.” McCarthy asked him if he was serious and Gehrig replied that he was. McCarthy then told Gehrig it would be as he wished.

Gehrig approached the plate and handed the lineup card without his name on it to home plate umpire Steve Basil and Tigers manager Del Baker. On the photo, you can see the shock and disbelief on the faces of the men gathered around Gehrig whose expression is one of complete dismay.

The thunderbolt news raced through both teams, then around the stadium and finally throughout the baseball world through the newswires that Lou Gehrig had taken himself out of the lineup and was ending his famous streak.

When the announcement was made over the public address system to the 11,379 fans in attendance of Gehrig’s voluntary withdrawal, it was suggested that he get a “a big hand.”

The New York Times reported a deafening cheer resounded as Lou walked to the dugout, doffed his cap and disappeared in a corner of the bench.

Lou Gehrig consoles  Babe Dahlgren about replacing Gehrig in the Yankees line-up, May 2 1939

Lou Gehrig consoles Babe Dahlgren about replacing Gehrig in the Yankees line-up, May 2 1939

Ellsworth “Babe” Dahlgren who had waited since 1937 to start at first base for the Yankees, finally, but reluctantly got his chance. “I hated to break his streak,” said Dahlgren.

”I remember Lou taking the lineup card up to the plate that day. When he came back to the dugout he went over to the water fountain and took a drink. He started to cry. Lou stood there with a towel on his head, taking the longest drink I’ve ever seen anybody take.”

”But there was no special pressure. In fact, I almost hit four home runs the day I took his place. I hit one homer, a double off the fence, and two more balls were caught at the fence.”

The Yankees annihilated the Tigers 22-2 in a game that few would remember for the action on the field.

Today most baseball stars are self-absorbed, egomaniacal, multi-millionaires, who speak in a soundbyte, ESPN camera-ready, way of talking. This makes it hard for a modern fan to fathom a person like Lou Gehrig stepping up and explaining his selfless actions in a modest and sincere manner.

After the game this is exactly what Gehrig said to the newspaper writers.

“I decided last Sunday night on this move. I haven’t been a bit of good to the team since the season started. It would not be fair to the boys, to Joe or to the baseball public for me to try going on. In fact, it would not be fair to myself and I’m the last consideration.”

“It’s tough to see your mates on base, have a chance to win a ball game, and not do anything about it. McCarthy has been swell about it all the time. He’d let me go until the cows came home, he is that considerate of my feelings, but I knew in Sunday’s game I should get out of there.”

“I went up there four times with men on base. Once there were two there. A hit would have won the ball game for the Yankees, but I missed, leaving five stranded as the Yankees lost. Maybe a rest will do me some good. Maybe it won’t. Who knows? Who can tell? I’m just hoping.”

New York Times columnist John Kieran would not count Gehrig out. In an excerpt from his May 3, 1939 column reproduced below, he thought as most baseball fans did that Gehrig was tired and a little worn down, and just needed a small break from playing. He would then resume his productive ways.

John Kieran article excerpt 5 3 1939

However there was a suspicion that Gehrig might never play again, but no one knew for sure, Gehrig included. For weeks Gehrig sat on the sidelines. But on June 12, 1939 Gehrig surprised everyone and played three innings in an exhibition game for the Yankees against their farm team in Kansas City, the Blues. In the field Gehrig handled four putouts and in his only at bat grounded out to Blues second baseman Gerry Priddy.

After the game Gehrig left for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN to find out what was ailing him. When he returned from Minnesota, it was announced on June 21 that Gehrig was suffering from a form of “infantile paralysis,” the proper medical term being amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Gehrig stayed with the Yankees for the remainder of the season, as they went on to win the World Series, but he never played another inning again.

Two years later on June 2, 1941 Lou Gehrig died at the age of 37 from the disease that is now named after him.

On that day in 1939 when Gehrig took himself out of the line-up, Joe McCarthy said of him, “He’s been a great ball player. Fellows like him come along once in a hundred years. I told him that. More than that, he’s been a vital part of the Yankee club since he started with it. He’s always been a perfect gentleman, a credit to baseball.”

Joe McCarthy was wrong. It won’t be a hundred years. We will never see another person like Lou Gehrig.

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6 Responses to The Moment Lou Gehrig Stepped Down “For The Good Of The Team”

  1. Scott K. says:

    I worked the Tigers Clubhouse from 95 to 2011, the last 11 @ Comerica Park. One day there was a bang on the clubhouse door and in the doorway was a man, probably in his 80’s asking if he could come in and look around. Well, I told him I couldn’t, I felt bad but that was the rule. He told me he used to be a bat boy on the visitors side on the day Lou Gehrig’s played his last game. Then he pointed his finger to the top of the stairs leading to the Tigers Dugout, “That’s where I helped Lou Gerig untie and take off his shoes. He was sitting on a players travel trunk, he was unable to do it himself”. I let him back in the clubhouse for a few minutes and he was rattling off players names and pointed to different lockers. I remember Babe Ruth’s name and he went on from there, it was quite amazing watching and listening to him as he pointed and spoke, pointed and spoke. Anyway he peeked and poked around different rooms and left, the whole thing took less that 10min’s. After he left I started thinking, why would Lou Gerig walk up the Tigers tunnel from the Tigers bench? He was a Yankee! I’m a retired P.O. and I was taken by an old man. I told the story to some people, old and young and explained how I fell for the old “That’s where I took off Lou Gerig’s shoes on his final game trick”. Then one day I told the story at a family party and one of the Old Timers said that back in the day the Tigers Dugout was on the 3rd base side and the visitors 1st. Is that true, I heard every explanation. Can you clear things it up for me?

  2. Scott K. says:

    I meant that back in the day the Tigers were on the 1st base side and the visitors on the 3rd.

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