His body betraying him for reasons he could not understand, Lou Gehrig came to bat at Yankee Stadium in the fourth inning against the Washington Senators on April 29, 1939.
He had only three hits in the young season. But he had 2,720 in his magnificent career and was playing in his 2,129th consecutive game.
His power was almost gone. A degenerative neurological disease that would be named for him was decimating his body. Gehrig was 35, only weeks from turning 36.
Derek Jeter, another 35-year-old Yankee captain, has a different and much happier story. He is having one of his best seasons, batting .333, with 17 home runs, more than his total in any of the last three seasons.
And with 2,712 hits, he is close to passing Gehrig as the Yankees’ career hit leader.
In 2009, Jeter can look forward to several more seasons and if he stays healthy, to 3,000 or more hits. He is signed through next season and has said he might still be playing at shortstop when he’s 41.
As Gehrig came to the plate at the end of April 1939, he had just over two years to live.
His hitless game on April 24 prompted Arthur Daley of The New York Times to say that Gehrig’s batting average “has reached an alarming state of anemia.”
Even the next day, with two hits against the Philadelphia Athletics and his only run batted in of the season, Gehrig could not celebrate a respite from the indignity of failure. When a fly ball fell in for a hit, Gehrig could not make it to second for what would have most likely been a double if he had been healthy. He rounded first base, but could neither return to first nor reach second.
He did not even wait to be tagged. “He just lowered his head and jogged slowly back to the Yankee dugout,” Jonathan Eig wrote in his book “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.” The Times reported it differently, saying he was tagged out in a “reckless attempt” to stretch a single into a double.
Yet, that day Gehrig felt optimistic enough that his ailment was temporary that he ordered three new bats from Hillerich & Bradsby, Eig wrote. They weighed 33 ounces, lighter than those he used in 1938.
April 29 was a Saturday, with 11,473 fans watching the Yankees play the Senators on a chilly, cloudy afternoon. The Yankees’ Lefty Gomez was pitching against the Senators’ Ken Chase.
Gehrig was fifth in the Yankees’ lineup, behind Frank Crosetti, Red Rolfe, Jake Powell and Joe DiMaggio.
In his fourth season, DiMaggio was now the team’s superstar, not Gehrig, whose .295 batting average in 1938 represented a worrisome and dramatic fall from his .351 average in 1937. In 1938, DiMaggio hit .324 with 32 home runs and 140 RBI. In 1939, he was on his way to hitting .381, his career best.
With the Yankees heading to Detroit, The New York Mirror wrote, “Captain Lou Gehrig isn’t hitting and may be demoted.” The New York Sun suggested that Gehrig’s “benching seems imminent.”
Gehrig, not Manager Joe McCarthy, took the initiative. On May 2, Gehrig said he was benching himself. “Maybe a rest will do me some good,” he said. “Maybe it won’t. Who knows? Who can tell? I’m just hoping.”