Lou Gehrig – End Of Career And Diagnosis (ALS) (Part 3, Last Part)

No one expected Lou Gehrig to stop playing baseball anytime soon, however, during the 1938 baseball season; Lou went into a hitting slump.  As the season went on, the slump got worse.  He was unhappy with himself even when the other players tried to cheer him up.  No one knew what was causing his poor play.  His manager, Joe McCarthy, could not see a problem in his swing or anything wrong with his stance. Many people thought that the years of playing without a break had taken a toll on him.  Despite his slump, the Yankees won the World Series and Lou finished the season batting .295.

The following season, Lou played even worse.  He missed ground balls that were hit straight at him and hardly had the power to make a throw to second or third base.  Eight games into the season, Lou had made only four hits for an average of .143.  He was so slow covering first base that other players had to wait for him before making a play. Even off the field there were sings of his weakness. He became more and more clumsy and one day he fell down while getting dressed in the clubhouse. On May 2, 1939, Lou told his manager that he was benching himself for the good of the team. McCarthy, who had been very patient and still believed in him said, ”Alright Lou, take a rest . . . but I want you to know that that’s your position and whenever you want it back, all you have to do is walk out there and take it.”

The following month, Lou and his wife, Eleanor visited the Mayo Clinic, where Lou was tested for six days. On June 19, 1939, on his thirty-sixth birthday, doctors told him that he was suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a deadly disease that affects the central nervous system. Lou knew that this disease would not only end his career but also end his life.

After hearing the terrible news about Lou’s disease, Yankee fans made July 4, 1939, Lou Gherig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium. More than 80,000 fans including his wife, his parents, former Yankee All-Stars, the baseball writers club, league officials, the Mayor of New York, the Postmaster general, the Yankee’s biggest rivals, the New York Giants, and Lou’s former teammate, Babe Ruth, gathered to show their support and appreciation.  New York mayor, Fiorello La Gaurdia, called Gehrig “the greatest prototype of good sportsmanship and citizenship.”   After all of the speeches and awards were given, Lou made his farewell speech. With tears in his eyes, he stepped up to the mic and said:

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans . . . When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeeper and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something. When you have a father and mother work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know. I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. And I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.

After Gehrig gave his speech, the crowd stood and applauded, and for almost two minutes they chanted, “WE LOVE YOU LOU!”  Lou’s favorite gift that day was a silver trophy given to him by his team. It had a bronze plate on it, which said:

We’ve been to the wars together;
We took our foes as they came;
And always you were the leader,
And ever you played the game.
Idol of cheering millions,
Records are yours by sheaves;
Iron of frame they hailed you
Decked you with laurel leaves.
But higher than that we hold you,
We who have known you best;
Knowing the way you came through
Every human test.
Let this be a silent token
Of lasting Friendship’s gleam,
And all that we’ve left unspoken;
Your Pals of the Yankees Team.

The Yankees retired Lou’s uniform number “4” making him the first player in major league baseball to be given that honor. And in that same year he was unanimously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. On June 2, 1941, Lou died in his home.  James M. Kahn wrote of him in the New York Sun, “Gherig was quiet, somewhat shy, and sincerely modest.  He was contentious, uncomplaining and persevering.  He was not a natural athlete and had to work laboriously hard to become a ball player.” Eleanor Gehrig said, “I would not have traded two minutes of the joy and the grief with that man for two decades of anything with another.” Lou Gehrig will always be remembered and respected for being both a great baseball player and a great man.

* * *

Click here to read Lou Gehrig Part 1.

Click here to read Lou Gehrig Part 2.

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  1. Wow. Great blog-post. They certainly don’t make ’em like that anymore. Bill

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