Remembering Gehrig's special HOF election

Tuesday marks anniversary of date BBWAA elected Iron Horse to Hall of Fame

December 7th, 2021

Even in the moment, ’s greatness and importance to baseball history were well understood. So when Gehrig’s storied career came to an abrupt end after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1939, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America took swift action to properly recognize the legendary first baseman.

Tuesday marks the anniversary of the date the BBWAA convened at the 1939 Winter Meetings in Cincinnati and voted in a special election to put the Iron Horse in the Hall of Fame -- a mere 221 days after he played his final game.

It’s one of only two times in the history of the Hall of Fame that the BBWAA has selected a player via special election, the other occurring when the BBWAA elected Roberto Clemente months after he died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972.

Here’s a look at the events surrounding Gehrig’s selection to the Hall.

ALS diagnosis

On May 2, 1939, with his body breaking down due to a then-undiagnosed muscular disease and his performance waning, the Yankees first baseman voluntarily pulled himself from New York’s lineup, snapping his record-setting Iron Man streak of 2,130 consecutive games played.

This came on the heels of what was then viewed as his worst season. While the first baseman posted a solid .295 average with 29 homers and a .932 OPS over 157 games in 1938, it was a far cry from the numbers he put up from 1927-37 -- a collective .350 batting mark with a 1.117 OPS and an average of 39 home runs per season. But the knowledge that Gehrig was likely experiencing the onset of his disease casts a different light on his performance.

He was diagnosed with ALS on June 19, 1939, his 36th birthday, and soon after the Yankees announced that Gehrig was retiring. On July 4, the team honored the Iron Horse at Yankee Stadium, and 61,808 fans saw an emotional Gehrig deliver his famous “Luckiest Man” speech as he bid farewell to the game.

Hall of Fame officially unveiled in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The week before Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum officially opened with the inaugural induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The ceremony came three years after Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson became the first class to be elected to the Hall of Fame. From 1937-39, 20 more members were elected, including seven by the BBWAA, and the 11 living members were present in Cooperstown on June 12, 1939, to celebrate the unveiling of the physical Hall.

Earlier in 1939, BBWAA members cast their ballots for that year’s Hall of Fame class and elected Willie Keeler, George Sisler and Eddie Collins. It turned out to be the last regular BBWAA election until 1942, but it wasn’t the final time the BBWAA would meet in 1939 to elect a player to the Hall.

1939 special election

When the first Hall of Fame class was up for election in 1936, the BBWAA was given a quota of electing 10 players from the 20th century before the 1939 opening ceremonies, while a separate Veterans Committee was tasked with selecting players from the 19th century. 

The BBWAA went slightly over the quota, electing 12 players in the first four years of voting, with no plans to hold another vote in 1940. But once it became clear that Gehrig’s career was over, the BBWAA decided a special election was necessary.

So, on Dec. 7, 1939, BBWAA members came together at the Winter Meetings and elected Gehrig to the Hall of Fame. The official vote tally wasn’t disclosed.

There wasn’t a waiting period in place at the time; BBWAA members weren’t limited to selecting players who had been retired for a certain number of years. But with the exception of Ruth, who last played in 1935 and was elected the following year, every BBWAA selection before Gehrig hadn’t played a Major League game in more than five years. 

There were also a multitude of worthy candidates who weren’t selected from 1936-39. In fact, more than 50 individuals who received votes on the 1939 BBWAA ballot but didn’t cross the 75% threshold needed for election were later enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

But Gehrig had a special case.

At the time of his retirement, Gehrig ranked second all time in homers (493) and was a lifetime .340/.447/.632 hitter in the regular season. He also hit .361 with 10 homers, 35 RBIs and a 1.214 OPS over seven World Series appearances while winning six championships. On top of all that, he had his Iron Man streak, a record that was considered unbreakable until it was surpassed by Cal Ripken Jr. decades later.

Gehrig passed away on June 2, 1941. With no ceremony held in 1940 or 1941, he never had a chance to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in person. But the 1939 special election at least made it possible for Gehrig to become a Hall of Famer while he was still living.

Gehrig and 11 other late Hall of Famers who never had a chance to be formally inducted were honored during the annual induction ceremonies in Cooperstown on July 28, 2013. In 2021, MLB officially designated June 2 as Lou Gehrig Day to celebrate the man and raise awareness for ALS.