Between 1936 and 1939 the Yankees won four consecutive championships and established themselves as the premiere team in baseball. Those teams were anchored by Lou Gehrig, who played for the Yankees from 1923 up until 1939 when he was forced into retirement. By 1938, Gehrig started to show signs of slowing down, or at least that something was wrong, as he batted .295/.410/.523. While these numbers aren't necessarily bad, they were down from his normal career numbers and down from his 1937 campaign in which he hit .351/.473/.643.
In spring training of 1939 and during the beginning of the season, it was pretty clear that Gehrig's power and ability had greatly weakened, which eventually led Gehrig to bench himself because he knew he couldn't play anymore and that he was just hurting the team by putting himself out there. So on May 2nd of 1939, he went to then manager Joe McCarthy and took himself out. That was the first time after 2,130 games that Gehrig did not appear in a Yankee lineup. What was unknown, at the time, was that his last game would not only serve as his final game that season, but the final game of his career.
As his condition worsened, Gehrig eventually flew out to see Charles William Mayo of the Mayo clinic, who had been studying his case. After a few days of testing, Gehrig's diagnosis of ALS was confirmed. This news was eventually released to the public, and on June 21st of 1939, the Yankees officially announced Gehrig's retirement from the game of baseball. A few weeks later, on July 4th, Gehrig would give his infamous "Luckiest Man" speech, which still resonates with fans today. That year, in 1939, the Yankees went on to win their fourth consecutive World Series championship.
The following year, expectations were high for the Yankees as almost anyone and everyone penciled them into winning the pennant and hopefully bringing New York a fifth consecutive championship. Gehrig himself attended games that year, though he couldn't play. He would still go there and support the team and even sit in the dugout on the bench with McCarthy. Unfortunately though, those 1940 Yankees never seemed to click like the teams the year before, and though Joe DiMaggio was still doing all that he could to help the team win (.352/.425/.626 with 31 home runs and 133 RBIs in 1940), the rest of the team was vastly underperforming and no one could figure out why. In his book Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, author Jonathan Eig recalls a theory that was published by Jimmy Powers of the Daily News:
The Yankees, who for the past four years have been one of the greatest baseball machines in history, and almost universally selected to win the pennant again, have collapsed.
Has the mysterious "polio" germ, which felled Lou Gehrig, also struck his former teammates, turning a once-great team into a floundering non-contender?...The Yanks were exposed to it at its most acute stage. They played ball with the afflicted Gehrig, dressed and undressed in the locker room with him, traveled, played cards and ate with him. Isn't it possible some of them also became infected?
Powers went on to write how it's hard to believe that Gehrig being diagnosed and being around the Yankees just a year prior to their slump was just a coincidence. As Eig tells, the story didn't just end there. Powers went on to also list players and "symptoms" they were suffering and how it all tied back to Gehrig.
The story included a chart listing the conditions of the so-called ‘Slumping Champs.' Red Ruffing, according to the article, had ‘unexpectedly lost his overpowering fastball'; Lefty Gomez was throwing ‘with hardly any power at all'
And the article went on to list eight more players, or "Slumping Champs", all of whom were showing these so-called symptoms that were similar to Gehrig's loss of power and fatigue that he showed at the end of his career.
Once the article was published and Gehrig saw what was being written about him, he was absolutely furious. He penned a letter to one of his neurologists at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Paul O'Leary, where he completely bashed Powers, basically referring to him as a coward. He then went on to file a libel suit against Powers and the Daily News. The suit claimed that the published article "greatly injured his credit and reputation and in the social intercourse with his friends and suffered great pain and mental anguish." Of course, Gehrig was fully in his rights to file this suit as ALS is not a communicable disease. And Powers claimed it to be a mystery disease to the likes of polio, which of course, is communicable.
The case never made it to trial however, as the newspaper eventually settled with Gehrig for $17,500. Granted, it partially never went to trial because Gehrig was ill and could not handle the stress that comes with a full-blown trial, but it in a certain way shows that Gehrig was mainly out to save his reputation and show that he would not harm the team mentally, let alone endanger them physically. Gehrig and his lawyers also concluded that Powers did not act out of malicious intent. He just simply hypothesized a theory based off of misinformation, and that wasn't worth the battle. Lawyers for the Daily News eventually traveled to Rochester, MN, to interview the doctors who ran tests and diagnosed Gehrig. They claim they only then learned that Gehrig had ALS and what it really was. They say that the Yankees officials and the doctors who originally came out and said Gehrig was suffering, described the disease as "a form of poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis."
Per Powers' obituary, Dave Kaplan wrote that Powers did eventually apologize for his role in this controversy and that he had no reason to get mixed up in this mess, while also admitting that Gehrig was a personal hero of his.