“How can I get the same feeling of satisfaction out of it? I’m not giving them the same thing, so I’m not getting the same thing. You think they’re hurting me? But I’m hurting them, that’s the difference.” – Lou Gehrig to his wife, Eleanor, on May 1, 1939, the day before he benched himself in Detroit.
When Lou Gehrig decided to bench himself on May 2, 1939, it was a decision that did not come overnight. It might have started back in the final month-plus of the 1938 season when Gehrig hit an unusual three home runs in the final 39 games of the season.
After struggling in the preseason, Gehrig was off to a slow start in 1939, and on April 30, Gehrig was convinced his play was hurting the Yankees. He went 0-for-4 in a game against the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium, and in his final at-bat he hit the ball as hard as he had hit one all season, and it failed to clear the fence for a home run.
In the next inning, Gehrig fielded a ball to his right at first base. Normally, he would have jogged to first to make the out, but he realized he might not get there in time and had to throw the ball to the pitcher to make the out. Gehrig’s teammates congratulated him in the dugout, and it caused him to wonder if his play had fallen so far that he would be congratulated for making a routine play.
“Heavens, has it reached that stage?” he asked himself, according to Jonathan Eig’s book, “Luckiest Man.”
The Yankees had an off day before starting a road trip in Detroit. Joe DiMaggio already was out with an injury, and Gehrig was not producing with a .143 batting average and no home runs in eight games.
At home on Monday, Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor, described him as, “troubled, shaken, even shocked,” in “Luckiest Man.”
The train carrying the Yankees arrived in Detroit early that Tuesday morning. After eating breakfast with Yankees catcher Bill Dickey at the Book-Cadillac Hotel, Gehrig saw manager Joe McCarthy in the lobby. Gehrig told McCarthy they needed to talk, and when they arrived at the manager’s room, Gehrig asked McCarthy to play someone else at first base.
Gehrig had played in 2,130 consecutive games, stretching from June 2, 1925, until April 30, 1939, so it was national news that he was going to miss a game.
McCarthy talked the press and said, “it’s a black day for me and the Yankees.”
Babe Dahlgren was chosen to replace Gehrig at first base, and he pleaded with Gehrig to reconsider, but Gehrig had his mind made up. After batting practice and infield practice, it was obvious that Gehrig was going to sit out the game, and the only thing left was to make it official.
McCarthy gave the lineup card to Gehrig, who as team captain occasionally would take it out to the meeting with umpires at home plate prior to the game. As Gehrig walked back to the dugout, Tigers broadcaster Ty Tyson grabbed the public address system and said, “How about a hand for Lou Gehrig, who played in 2,130 games in a row before he benched himself today.”
The crowd of 11,000 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit responded with cheers and an ovation. Gehrig rose to the top step of the dugout, tipped his cap and retreated to the locker room in tears. Doc Holst described the scene in The Detroit Free Press.
“Gehrig bawled like an engineer who has been given a party at his retirement on full pension after 55 years of faithful, honest service,” Holst wrote. “Gehrig cried because at 36, the greatest thing in his life had ended. He felt like a nobody.
“He didn’t want a parasol for 50 years of faithful service or an engraved gold watch. He wanted to keep on working. Rocking on the front porch and thinking of the things you used to do holds no glamour for a thirty-six-year-old man. So, Gehrig bawled like a baby and Boss McCarthy of the Yankees didn’t blame him.
“He’s the only truly modest fellow I’ve ever known,” McCarthy said in the Free Press. “He could hit a ball over that Masonic Temple over there, and you would never hear Lou tell about it. I never in my life heard Gehrig talk about something that he did. It was always something he didn’t do that worried him.”
It created a somber atmosphere in Briggs Stadium, but the game went on. The Tigers were starting a rookie pitcher, Fred Hutchinson, who was making his major-league debut. Hutchinson went on to pitch for Detroit for 10 seasons and win 95 games. He later managed the Cincinnati Reds but died of cancer at age 45. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center was named in his honor.
The Yankees were way too much for Hutchinson in his debut. He gave up eight runs in the first three innings, and New York went on to a 22-2 victory, obviously fired up to win one for Gehrig. Dahlgren, who replaced Gehrig, had two hits, including a home run in the third inning.
Gehrig never played again, although he stayed with the team as the two-week road trip progressed. When the team was in Chicago, Gehrig flew to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he underwent tests for six days before it was determined that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which later became known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
He was finished as a ballplayer, and on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Day was held at Yankee Stadium. It was then that Gehrig made his famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. He died on June 2, 1941, at the age of 37.
Gehrig lived nearly two years after his diagnosis and just 25 months to the day after he benched himself on a Tuesday afternoon in Detroit. That same day, a baby named William James Brown was born in Crestline, Ohio, less than 200 miles from Detroit. Thirty years later, that baby would become one of the most beloved Tigers players of all time. But we didn’t know him as William Brown or Bill Brown, we knew him as Gates Brown, born on the same day Lou Gehrig benched himself in Detroit.