He looked like a guy who could fend off any physical challenge but even a baseball god could not overcome the insidious impact of ALS. Strong and powerful at the beginning of one year. Unable to compete the next.
The sad ending to his story is well known, but contrary to the impression some may have, Lou Gehrig didn’t completely walk away from the field when his retirement was announced on June 21, 1939. An original, dated wire photo from the following day shows Gehrig on the field at Yankee Stadium, fielding throws from coach Red Ruffing, who had been hitting fungoes to Gehrig’s Yankee teammates. It may be the last one showing Gehrig taking part in baseball activity.
The 7×9 photo was taken before the Yankees took on the Chicago White Sox. It’s one of more than 1,300 images in RMY Auctions’ Summer Premier Auction, set to close on Saturday.
Gehrig almost certainly didn’t field like his old self at that point. In fact, it was his coordination loss that began to worry teammates and his wife Eleanor as 1939 unfolded. Yet Gehrig didn’t want to simply stay home. After hitting .143 in eight games to start the season, he asked out of the lineup and manager Joe McCarthy agreed. It was thought that extended rest might be the answer for his loss of strength.
Gehrig still traveled with the team but when his condition didn’t improve, Eleanor Gehrig took matters into her own hands and called the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. After six days of extensive testing, Gehrig was informed of doctors’ diagnosis on his 36th birthday. He returned to New York and retired. It was referred to in the caption as a “rare form of paralysis”). Two weeks after the photo was taken, Gehrig game his famous “luckiest man” speech during a ceremony to honor him.
Photos taken of Gehrig taking part in any baseball activity following his diagnosis are extremely rare, likely because it simply didn’t happen as he continued to decline. On June 22, 1939, however, Gehrig probably still felt he could contribute, even in some small way.