On April 30, 1939, Lou Gehrig appeared in his 2,130th consecutive Major League Baseball game. It would be his last.
Gehrig was 36 years old in 1939 and after helping lead the New York Yankees to a World Series in 1938 (his sixth with the franchise), he suddenly couldn't perform to his high standards anymore. While Gehrig later claimed he felt himself getting tired during the second-half of the 1938 season, he still showed up and performed every day at a high level. Then in 1939, his play in the field and at the plate declined rapidly and he knew something was wrong.
After a rough spring training where his swing suddenly didn't have any power, he noticed his coordination and speed slipping. On April 30, Gehrig batted fifth and went 0-for-4 against the Washington Senators, dropping his season average to .143 through eight games. After a day off, Gehrig asked Yankees manager Joe McCarthy to bench him for the good of the team on May 2. McCarthy agreed, inserting Babe Dahlgren in the lineup at first base.
Gehrig shocked the crowd at Briggs Stadium in Detroit that day, when he walked from the dugout to deliver the lineup card. The Tigers fans in attendance were clued-in to what was happening when the stadium announcer informed them it was the first time Gehrig had sat out in 2,130 games. He was given a sustained standing ovation by the opposing crowd.
Gehrig remained with the Yankees as the team captain for the rest of the season but he never appeared in another game. As we all know, he was later diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS. He died from the disease on June 2, 1941 at 37 years old.
Gehrig's consecutive games streak was a marvel. It began on June 1, 1925 when he was inserted as a pinch hitter for Pee Wee Wanniger. The next day Yankees manager Miller Huggins gave Gehrig a start over incumbent first baseman Wally Pipp, who had been struggling. Gehrig went 3-for-5 with a double, and the rest was history. He didn't miss a game over the next 14 seasons. Before Gehrig's streak, the previous record was Everett Scott's mark of 1,307.
Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games stood for 56 years until Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. broke it. Ripken ran his streak to 2,632 games.
Gehrig's diagnosis became public on June 19, 1939 just weeks after he'd been in the lineup. On July 4, the Yankees held "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day" and held ceremonies between the day's doubleheader. Even Babe Ruth returned to celebrate his former teammate. On that day, Gehrig delivered his famous "luckiest man" speech. A segment of the speech is below:
During his 17-year career, Gehrig hit .340 with 2,721 hits, 493 home runs and 1,995 RBIs. His career OPS was a ridiculous 1.080. He was a seven-time All-Star, a two-time MVP and won the American League Triple Crown in 1934. He also led the American League in home runs three times and RBIs five times. Gehrig and Ruth teamed up for much of their careers, combining to become the most potent hitting duo in baseball history.
Gehrig is considered by many to be the greatest first baseman of all-time. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 in a special election.