Lou Gehrig – One of the greatest…

In my previous blogs I have discussed WWII era major league baseball from the perspective of a major league ballplayer who played during that time – for those of you interested in what we refer to as “timeless baseball” I’d like to discuss one of the GREATEST of all major league ballplayers– the IMMORTAL Lou Gehrig and his final year in the New York Yankees line-up – 1939.

Let’s take a look at 1939 and what was happening in the world – war clouds had started to gather over Europe with the Nazi conquest of Poland. In just a few short years, the entire world would be in flames and major league baseball would be significantly affected –but that’s a subject I have already touched on in my previous blogs.

This blog is specifically about LOU GEHRIG – “THE IRON HORSE”

1939 would prove to be a good season for my father, George Case Jr. He batted .302 in his second full season with the Washington Senators and he began his major league record (at the time) of five consecutive years leading both major leagues in stolen bases. My father was named to the American League All Star team along with the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, Red Rolfe, Luke Appling and “Indian” Bob Johnson against a National League contingent featuring Mel Ott, “Big Jawn” Mize, “Ducky” Medwick, Enos “Country” Slaughter, Lonnie Fry, Harry Danning and “Cookie Lavagetto.

This game featuring many of baseball’ greatest stars and future Hall of Famer’s would once again prove to be a victory for the “Junior Circuit” which had dominated All Star games since the game was established in 1933. The “mid-summer” classic had been the brainchild of Arch Ward, at the time, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune. The American League would be victorious in five of the first seven All Star games played through 1939.

However, 1939 would not be a good year for the Washington Senators as the team finished in 6th place in the American League with 65 wins against 87 losses, well behind the eventual World series Champion, NY Yankees who dominated the American League with a 106-45 record – one of the all-time great NY Yankee teams!

1939 would also not be a good year for the world in general, with the increasing possibility of war and for baseball, in particular, as the year would always be remembered when Lou Gehrig was forced to say good-bye to major league baseball.

My father and Lou Gehrig were quite friendly, even though they were competitors. Lou, as the Yankees first baseman and my father, being the Senators lead-off man spent quite a bit of time together “on the field.” My dad carried with him, for all of his life, his “Lou Gehrig scar” – apparently from an errant pick-off throw when Lou had to jump to reach and came down on my father’s leg!

At the beginning of the 1939 season, many of the American League players were puzzled by the rapid deterioration in Lou’s skills. It is a well-known fact that all athletes will lose their athletic ability over time but in Gehrig’s case, the decline was dramatic and swift. On April 30th, 1939 Lou Gehrig would play his final major league game in a 3-2 loss to Washington at Yankee Stadium – I have been told, although I cannot verify this with certainty, that my father caught the last ball ever hit by Lou Gehrig in the major leagues – a fly ball to centerfield.

On May 2, 1939, in Detroit, following an off day, Lou Gehrig would take himself out of the Yankees line-up – an amazing streak of 2,130 consecutive games coming to an end!

In June of that fateful year, Lou was diagnosed by doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, as having ALS ( to always be known later as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.) Two weeks later, Lou Gehrig would be honored by the NY Yankees at Yankee Stadium and would give his famous “Luckiest Man” speech. As the Yankees were playing a doubleheader that day – July 4, 1939, my father was lined up with his Washington Senators teammates along the first base line – he would later tell me that ALL of the players on both teams had tears in their eyes for this great player and even greater human being as he said good-bye to the game he loved!

Lou Gehrig's

That same year, Lou Gehrig was named by Joe McCarthy as the honorary captain of the 1939 American League All Star team and in less than two years, Lou Gehrig passed away – just before his 38th birthday – major league baseball and all of America had lost a “hero.” In the years to come, unfortunately, many more “heroes” would be lost – not on the ball fields but on the battlefields!

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