Seventy-five years ago today, perhaps the most historic moment in New York Yankees history occurred at Yankee Stadium on an emotional Independence Day on July 4, 1939:
Gehrig was an unbelievably terrific first baseman throughout his time in pinstripes. He was arguably the greatest of all time, and certainly the best in Yankees history. A .340/.447/.632 hitter who slugged 534 doubles and 493 homers, Gehrig posted a ridiculous 112.0 rWAR in 14 seasons from 1925-38, excluding abbreviated stints in '23, '24, and '39. The Yankees won eight World Series titles and nine American League pennants with Gehrig on the team, and he served as the Yankees' captain from 1935 onward.
Then, there was of course his famous consecutive games played streak, which came to define his career. From June 1, 1925 onward, he never missed a game for the Yankees, appearing a then-record 2,130 straight games, a mark that stood for 56 years. Through numerous aches, pains, beanings, and supposedly even breaking all of his fingers at one point or another during the streak, he stayed in the lineup and was remarkably productive, too. He was the "Iron Horse," and that's what made his sudden decline in '39 so stunning.
Gehrig was only two months shy of his 36th birthday and though his performance slipped somewhat in '38, he still hit .295/.410/.523 with 32 doubles, 29 homers, and a 132 OPS+. However, he looked terrible in spring training of '39 and went a dismal 4-for-28 to start the season. He told manager Joe McCarthy to take him out of the lineup on May 2nd in Detroit. He tragically never played in another major league game; a trip to the Mayo Clinic later confirmed that he was diagnosed with a very rare disease: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Not many people knew about it at the time, but it was a horribly cruel disease that let people live for a few years while slowly destroying their quality of life. Gehrig's body would slowly cease to function while his mind stayed intact until eventually he lost the ability to breathe.
Although the extent to Gehrig's illness was not known to everyone at the time, the Yankees honored Gehrig on July 4th of that year by making him the first baseball player to ever have his number retired, and they held a reunion of the legendary "Murderers' Row" team of 1927, the year that Gehrig broke out and became a star. Teammates new and old, including Babe Ruth, lauded Gehrig, and his manager McCarthy fought back tears as he spoke of Gehrig's importance to the team, even after his playing career ended. Gehrig was called upon to speak, and he delivered the "Luckiest Man" speech linked in the video above. Just two years later, Gehrig was gone.
Now, seventy-five years to the day that Gehrig spoke to the Yankee Stadium crowd, Major League Baseball is honoring his memory by wearing a memorial patch today to show solidarity with the fight against ALS and first basemen around the game participated in reciting his speech:
The Yankees did it, too:
Thanks to Simon & Schuster, Pinstripe Alley is able to participate in our own way by giving away a few free copies of Jonathan Eig's brilliant 2005 biography of Gehrig, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. Here's how you can win one:
1) In commemoration of Gehrig's #4, be the 444th person to comment in our Yankees vs. Twins Game Thread today. If the thread does not reach 444 comments (which is certainly possible since it's a holiday and all that), then we will give it away to the 74th person to comment. (If it's one of the people on the writing staff, then we'll figure something else out.)
2) At 4:44 PM EST today, I will ask a Gehrig trivia question on the Pinstripe Alley Twitter account. The first person to come up with the answer wins a book. Be sure you're following us so that you have a chance to win a copy!
3) At 4:44 PM EST today, I will also ask a Gehrig trivia question on the Pinstripe Alley Facebook account. Again, the first person to come up with the answer wins a book. Like us on Facebook to participate!
4) To accommodate for those of you who are understandably busy today and might not be around the computer to participate in the other three, we will also have a FanPost contest that will run through the end of next week! Simply create a FanPost and tell us about your favorite Yankees experience. This is admittedly a broad topic, but it gives you the creative flexibility to write about whatever you want. We're more interested in your personal story regarding something regarding the Yankees, not necessarily describing the moment itself. It can be an experience you had at Yankee Stadium, an experience you had with family and friends regarding the Yankees, or whatever. You decide! The editors will convene to determine the winner. Don't be shy! Write it by 11:59 PM EST next Thursday and you can win!
Please comment if you have any questions. Hope you have a wonderful holiday!