Yankee Baseball Great Lou Gehrig Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Lou Gehrig, the star first baseman on the great New York Yankee teams of the 1920’s and 1930’s, was diagnosed with ALS in 1939 and died of the disease two years later. His illness and death brought national attention to a disease that few Americans had heard of and few medical researchers had studied or treated.

Summary of Event

Lou Gehrig, the son of German immigrants, played first base on six World Series-winning New York Yankee teams during the 1920’s and 1930’s. During his career, Gehrig, who reached the major leagues in 1923, amassed 493 home runs, 1,990 runs batted in, and a batting average of .340. The feat of which Gehrig was proudest, however, was his record consecutive-game-playing streak of 2,130 games. The streak, which began on June 1, 1925, and ended on May 1, 1939, marked Gehrig as baseball’s most durable player and earned him the nickname the Iron Horse. (Cal Ripken, Jr., of the Baltimore Orioles broke Gehrig’s consecutive-game-playing streak on September 6, 1995, and went on to play in 2,632 consecutive games.) Gehrig’s Yankee teammates included Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, and Joe DiMaggio. Baseball;Lou Gehrig[Gehrig] Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis New York Yankees Athletes;Lou Gehrig[Gehrig] [kw]Yankee Baseball Great Lou Gehrig Dies (June 2, 1941) [kw]Baseball Great Lou Gehrig Dies, Yankee (June 2, 1941) [kw]Gehrig Dies, Yankee Baseball Great Lou (June 2, 1941) Baseball;Lou Gehrig[Gehrig] Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis New York Yankees Athletes;Lou Gehrig[Gehrig] [g]North America;June 2, 1941: Yankee Baseball Great Lou Gehrig Dies[00270] [g]United States;June 2, 1941: Yankee Baseball Great Lou Gehrig Dies[00270] [c]Sports;June 2, 1941: Yankee Baseball Great Lou Gehrig Dies[00270] [c]Health and medicine;June 2, 1941: Yankee Baseball Great Lou Gehrig Dies[00270] Gehrig, Lou

During spring training in 1938, Gehrig, age thirty-four, began to complain about sore hands and unsteady legs. Blisters and bruises formed on his hands and arms. Gehrig surmised that he was merely dealing with the same physical problems that all professional athletes begin to experience as they approached the age of thirty-five. He had batted .351 in 1937, but he started the 1938 season poorly, batting just .133 in April. Teammates and opponents noticed that he frequently stumbled running the base paths and fielding his position. In May, Gehrig complained of back pains, but he completed the 1938 season with respectable statistics—a .295 batting average, 29 home runs, and 114 runs batted in—and the Yankees won the World Series for the third straight season. It was the first time since 1925, however, that Gehrig had not achieved a .300 seasonal batting average.

Gehrig’s physical problems persisted during the winter of 1938 and 1939. After seeing a physician, Gehrig was informed that he had gallbladder problems, and he was placed on a strict diet. When he reported for spring training in 1939, however, he appeared weak and uncoordinated. His arm, leg, and torso muscles seemed significantly diminished. He swung the bat feebly, stumbled running the bases, and made errors on routine fielding plays. He began the season for the Yankees at first base, but after eight games it became clear that Gehrig could not compete. His batting average was .143, and he had batted in only one run. On May 2, Gehrig asked Yankee manager Joe McCarthy to remove him from the Yankee lineup for a game in Detroit against the Tigers. McCarthy complied with his first baseman’s request, and Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games came to an end. He never played another major-league game.

Gehrig assumed that after a few weeks of rest he might return to the Yankee lineup, but the time off did not improve his condition. In June, he reported to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for a series of medical tests. Doctors at the clinic diagnosed Gehrig as having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a little-known neurological disorder that gradually shuts down the body’s central nervous system—first attacking the hands, arms, and legs, then destroying the respiratory system, leading eventually to death, usually within three years of diagnosis.

In 1939, few Americans had heard of ALS. The disease had been first identified by Jean-Martin Charcot, a French neurologist, in 1874, and in Europe the disease carried his name. There was no known cure. More than fifty years after ALS had been classified, few American physicians and medical researchers knew very much about it. Dr. Paul O’Leary of the Mayo Clinic, who had diagnosed Gehrig, and Dr. Israel Wechsler, a New York neurologist, had to treat Gehrig’s illness with experimental procedures, which included histamine injections and large doses of vitamin E.

Lou Gehrig slides into home plate, scoring a run for the Yankees in a game against the Washington Senators in 1925 or 1926.

(Library of Congress)

In a letter to the New York Yankees, doctors at the Mayo Clinic incorrectly compared ALS to infantile paralysis, another term for polio. Subsequent news stories also compared Gehrig’s illness to polio. In 1939, Americans were familiar with polio—President Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered from it—and they assumed that the disease would end Gehrig’s career but would not soon be fatal. As his condition worsened, Gehrig, at least in public, remained upbeat, maintaining that his disease had been arrested and that his condition might improve with treatment.

On July 4, 1939, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium. Between games of that day’s doubleheader, Gehrig was praised by baseball dignitaries and accepted gifts from teammates and opponents. The highlight of the ceremony, which attracted more than sixty thousand fans, was a moving speech by Gehrig. He acknowledged that he had gotten a bad break, but he still considered himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” for having played with the Yankees for more than fifteen seasons. He concluded his speech by asserting that he had a lot to live for. At the end of the 1939 baseball season, the Baseball Hall of Fame waived its requirement that players wait five years after retirement before being considered for admission and admitted Gehrig.

Few baseball fans believed that Gehrig would be dead in less than two years. In October, 1939, he accepted an offer from New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia to serve as commissioner of the city’s parole board. He drove to work every day and fulfilled the duties of his position. He remained optimistic, carefully followed the regimen of therapies prescribed by his doctors, and stoically endured the slow deterioration of his once-powerful body. In letters to his physicians, he carefully documented his diminishing physical capabilities, providing researchers with detailed information about the progress of his disease. By the end of 1939, Gehrig could no longer write. Nonetheless, he still maintained publicly, with his doctors’ encouragement, that his disease had been arrested.

By the start of 1941, Gehrig began to accept the notion that ALS would soon take his life. Sapped of energy, his motor skills deteriorating, Gehrig resigned from his parole board job in April and confined himself to his Bronx home. He died on June 2, 1941. Baseball and New York Yankee officials issued statements of appreciation and condolence. Thousands of New Yorkers viewed Gehrig’s body at the Church of the Divine Paternity in Manhattan, and about one thousand mourners attended his funeral. In 1942, Hollywood saluted Gehrig by releasing The Pride of the Yankees Pride of the Yankees, The (Wood) starring Gary Cooper as Gehrig and Babe Ruth as himself. The film, generally acknowledged as one of the best baseball films ever produced, earned nine Academy Award nominations.

Significance

Lou Gehrig gave ALS a human face. Even before Gehrig succumbed to the disease, Americans began calling ALS Lou Gehrig’s disease. So little was known about the disease in Gehrig’s time, however, that a season-long slump by the Yankees in 1940 was blamed on Gehrig. A New York Daily News reporter suggested that Gehrig had spread his disease to his teammates the previous season and that these Yankees were now showing its effects on the baseball diamond. (The Yankees finished in third place in 1940.) At the time of Gehrig’s death, medical researchers knew little about ALS, but they were certain that the disease was not contagious, and they assured the public of that fact. Gehrig’s ordeal also made clear that ALS was not simply a form of polio.

Since Gehrig’s death, millions of research dollars have been raised to study ALS. Various remedies have been tested. At least one unsuccessful treatment—ingesting large doses of vitamin E—was abandoned shortly after Gehrig’s death. Despite extensive research, however, medical researchers of the twenty-first century still do not know what causes the disease, and they have discovered no effective treatment or cure. Most ALS patients still die within three years of diagnosis. Since 1941, however, individuals suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease have had as a role model a person who endured the disease with stoicism, dignity, and even hope before losing his life to it. Baseball;Lou Gehrig[Gehrig] Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis New York Yankees Athletes;Lou Gehrig[Gehrig]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Creamer, Robert W. Baseball in 1941. New York: Viking, 1991. Discusses Gehrig’s death in the context of the 1941 baseball season.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eig, Jonathan. Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. The final third of this detailed biography of Gehrig focuses on the final two years of his life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Ray. Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. An excellent biography of Gehrig.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Richard Alan, ed. Handbook of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. New York: Dekker, 1992. A complete guide to ALS.

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