Memories & Dreams: Lou Gehrig Photo as Streak Ends

By Marty Appel

For all his triumphs over all his years, the most memorable Lou Gehrig photography came with the end of his historic playing streak in 1939.  That photography gives us a seat to the monumental event of the day, an event which captured the nation’s attention.

There were signs a year earlier, 1938, that Gehrig was slowing down, but in the course of a baseball career, that wasn’t entirely suspicious as he turned 35.  Few considered that there was an illness taking hold.  It was just age.  No one doubted Lou’s commitment to staying fit, working hard, and living a clean lifestyle.

But he got off poorly in ’38, hitting only .169 after 18 games with one home run and five RBIs.  And so there were whispers about fading skills.  Wrote Jack Miley in the New York Post, “It looks as if the Iron Man is beginning to crumble.”

He began to slowly lift his average.  He didn’t reach .300 until September 9, enduring a 21-game homerless streak along the way, and he finished at .295.  It was the first time since 1925, when his playing streak had begun, that he failed to hit .300.  He also struck out a career high 75 times.  

Still, think about it.  A man in the early stages of a disabling illness, hitting .295 with 29 homers and 114 RBIs against Major League pitching without missing a game.

But on September 19, 1938, at St. Louis, batting fifth in the lineup, he played first base in the bottom of the first, but then was removed for pinch hitter Babe Dahlgren in the top of the second.  This was unheard of during his playing streak, and it happened again ten days later, the second game of a doubleheader, before 1,500 fans in Philadelphia.   In neither game did he come to bat, with Dahlgren replacing him at first.   The streak continued. 

In the 1938 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, he managed just four singles in the four games, did not drive in a run, but celebrated with his teammates as the Yankees won their third straight world championship.  It was Lou’s sixth ring.  He finished an uncharacteristic 19th in MVP voting.  Teammates Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, Joe DiMaggio, and Joe Gordon all finished ahead of him, making him, by that tally, the fifth most valuable player on the team.  His playing streak stood at 2,122.

The Gehrigs, Lou and Eleanor, spent a quiet off season in their Larchmont, New York apartment, occasionally going ice skating in nearby Rye.  He saw no advanced medical practitioners. Mostly he waited for spring training and some distant hope that his slowdown in 1938 was an aberration.  

But it wasn’t.  He was clearly less adroit at his position as training unfolded and his bat was slow.  According to biographer Jonathan Eig in “Luckiest Man,” Gehrig even asked Brooklyn catcher Al Lopez if he could identify any flaws in his swing.  “I don’t think you have any snap to your swing,” Lopez recalled for Eig.“  “You’re kind of pushing it.”

He was caught off base on a liner, and observers thought it was the kind of play his old reflexes would have easily handled.  

The Yankees headed north by train to play in eleven cities in fifteen days largely against minor league teams.  His play did not improve, although he did hit two home runs in one game, his only homers of the spring.

The regular season opened on April 20, and Lou was in the starting lineup.  There was no way that manager Joe McCarthy would sit him.  It would be Lou’s call when the time came; he was owed that much.  So, he played in the first eight games of the season, the Yankees winning five of them, the final one on Sunday, April 30, a 3-2 loss to Washington in which he went 0-for-4 in his 2,130th consecutive game.  Batting fifth, he flied out three times and grounded out to second.  He made a routine play in the ninth, flipping a ground ball to pitcher Johnny Murphy for the out at first.  When he got back to the dugout, teammates congratulated him.   He must have felt the play unworthy of congratulations, and he probably talked about it with Eleanor that night.  

For April he was 4-for-28, a .143 average with four singles, five walks, one strikeout and an RBI.   

Monday morning, the Yankees gathered at Grand Central Terminal to board the speedy “Detroiter” train for a 13-hour train ride to Detroit, arriving at Michigan Central Depot near midnight, and checking into the Book-Cadillac Hotel on Washington Blvd.  There was to be a 3 o’clock game at Briggs Stadium on Tuesday, May 2.

After breakfast in the hotel with his roommate Dickey, Gehrig was reading a newspaper in the lobby when he spotted McCarthy and told him he wanted to talk to him “about an important matter,” according to Charlie Segar of the New York Mirror, who overheard their exchange.

In McCarthy’s room, Lou said he was prepared to end his streak and miss that day’s game.  McCarthy wanted to make sure that Lou was certain.  He was.  He was doing it “for the good of the team,” he said.

McCarthy went back to the lobby, gathered the newspapermen, and told them of the lineup change.  “It’s a black day for me,” he said, “and for the Yankees.”

At the ballpark, photographers were there aplenty, and in those days had unlimited access to the field in the area between the dugouts and the batter’s box.  This was common practice into the 1950s, like fielders leaving their gloves on the field, starting pitchers warming up next to home plate, or bats lined up in front of the dugout before there were bat racks.   

So, the newspaper photographers – there may have been a half dozen –satisfied themselves with pictures of Gehrig in the Yankees dugout, wearing his road gray flannel uniform, looking out to the field.  The one that emerged as the most widely seen was taken by an unidentified photographer for United Press International, and as it was a wire service photo, it ran across the country the next day, and then onward for years in baseball history books and “historic moments” magazines.  

The photo would have been taken by a lightweight portable 4×5” Graflex Speed Graphic, ubiquitous among press photographers and easily recognized by its folding bellow with a flash on the photographer’s right.  

Lou is gazing onto the field, reflecting on the moment, while his normally affable teammate Lefty Gomez (number 11) sits near him, seemingly lost in thought at the unfolding moment of baseball history.  In the background, seated on the bench and wearing a jacket, is McCarthy between two newspapermen.  There can be little doubt what the subject of discussion was.

Veteran sports photographer Ray Stubblebine, long with Associated Press and Reuters, studied the photo recently and said, “The angle of the body takes the eye straight up to the face where you stop.  Look at his expression!  He looks very whimsical about the fact his streak is over, certainly not distraught or upset.  He has come to terms with the decision.  I find it interesting that no one in the dugout is making a fuss or watching him – it’s baseball; life goes on.”

Gehrig is wearing the Centennial of Baseball patch on his sleeve, part of a yearlong celebration which included the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  Lou himself would be voted in that December by special election.  

A crowd was just over 11,000, which included, remarkably, Michigan native Wally Pipp, 46, whom Gehrig had replaced at first base 14 years earlier.  The fans were unaware of what was unfolding until McCarthy had Lou, as team captain, bring the lineup card to home plate for the umpire meeting, and PA announcer Ty Tyson said “How about a hand for Lou Gehrig, who played 2,130 games in a row before he benched himself today!!”  McCarthy would call what followed the “damndest ovation I ever heard.”  Lou acknowledged the cheers from the fans and went to the water cooler for a drink.  Teammates said they saw him crying.

With Dahlgren playing first, (2-for-5 with a homer his first time up), the Yankees won their game 22-2, with outfielder Charlie Keller making his Major League debut, filling in for an injured DiMaggio.  They would go 24-4 in their first month without Lou, and on to a 106-45 season, a fourth straight world championship, and according to many baseball historians, one of the greatest teams in baseball history.  It was ironic in that it was done without Gehrig, just as it was ironic that the great 1927 Yankees did it without Dickey, who was still a year away from joining the team.

On June 13, Lou arrived at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for further tests, and from them emerged a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, later to be called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”    From that came his decision to retire and the memorable Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day (with the “luckiest man” speech) at Yankee Stadium on July 4.