By the standards of most mortals playing major league baseball, Lou Gehrig’s 1938 season with the New York Yankees earned him his sixth straight selection to the American League All Star Team. He played in all 157 of his team’s games. His batting average was .295; he hit 29 home runs and drove in 114 runs.
But for Lou, 1938’s statistics were his worst in years. The last time he hit fewer home runs was 1928 and the last time drove in fewer runs was 1926. The only other time he missed hitting .300, by the same scant 5 percentage points, was his first year as a regular – 1925.
But Gehrig had a good excuse for his sub-standard year in 1938, even though no one, including himself, knew it.
By early in the year, close observers noticed new frailties in the great first baseman’s game, frailties suggesting – at least in retrospect – the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurodegenerative disease short-handed as ALS, or “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
It wasn’t until after the season that doctors made that diagnosis.
It didn’t stop Gehrig, who went to spring training and tried to play on through his illness. But, he started only eight more games before ending his streak of consecutive games played at 2,130 – from July 1, 1925 to May 2, 1939 – before retiring. He made his famous farewell at Yankee Stadium on July 4 of that year and died less than two years later.
It may have been Gehrig’s greatest triumph that his play in his last real season of baseball was heartbreaking only in retrospect. And his famous locution in his farewell – “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” wasn’t some irony made for the occasion. Lou had been saying those exact words in interview after interview since he left Columbia University to join the Yankees.
Dan Joseph is a journalist and author living in the Washington, D.C. area. He is a graduate of Indiana University and has spent nearly 20 years working for the Voice of America, most as an editor in VOA’s central newsroom. His new book is The Last Ride of the Iron Horse: How Lou Gehrig Fought ALS to Play One Final Championship Season.
He previously co-authored Inside Al-Shabaab, a study of the East African terrorist organization. A member of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), he is also a lifelong baseball fan and one of the few living people under 50 to have attended a Pittsburgh Pirates World Series game.