He was known as the "Iron Horse" by virtue of his 2,130 consecutive game streak that spanned the course of 15 seasons. On June 1, 1925, Yankees manager Miller Huggins sent a young Lou Gehrig into the game as a pinch hitter for Pee Wee Wanninger. The next day, Gehrig would be inserted into the regular lineup to replace starting first baseman Wally Pipp, who had been in a hitting slump. Little did anyone know that this would be the start of a miraculous record-breaking decade in which Gehrig would hit 493 home runs (23 of them grand slams), collect 2,721 hits, knock in 1,995 RBIs and hit for an average of .340.
Along the way Gehrig and the Yankees won six World Series. He was named the American League MVP twice and was elected to seven American League All-Star squads. In 1934, Gehrig won the coveted Triple Crown with a league-leading .363 batting average, 49 home runs and 165 RBIs. Needless to say, with Gehrig around, no one ever heard from Wally Pipp again.
Aside from all these accomplishments, it was the continuous game streak that most fans and sports writers considered to be one of baseball's few unbreakable records. In fact, the record stood for 56 years until it was broken by Baltimore's Cal Ripken on Sept. 6, 1995. Who knows how many more consecutive games Gehrig had in him if he hadn't been afflicted with ALS at the young age of 36? It was always remain a mystery.
Gehrig's 1938 season was respectable by anyone's standards but Gehrig's. He hit .295, had 114 RBIs and belted 29 home runs. Compared to his 1937 season's numbers -- .351 (average), 159 RBIs and 37 home runs -- something just wasn't right. Gehrig was disappointed in his four singles in 14 at-bats in the 1938 World Series, but he was sure that he would bounce back better than ever. He always had.
As Spring Training rolled around in 1939, it was evident that Gehrig's condition was getting worse. Not only had he not bounced back, but the formidable power that had once allowed him to hit four home runs in a single game had abandoned him. Gehrig didn't hit a home run all spring. Always a threat on the basepaths, now his once excellent speed and coordination had also turned its back on Gehrig.
Stubbornly, Gehrig started the 1939 season still convinced he could shake whatever it was that had been ailing him. Unfortunately, by the end of April, Gehrig was only hitting .143 and had driven in one run. On defense he covered the bag at first base as if his feet were mired in mud. The graceful athletic ability that made him a joy to watch was painfully missing.
After a hitless game against Washington on April 30, Gehrig decided that he couldn't kid himself any longer. In the previous weeks he had stumbled over curbs and even fallen down in the locker room while changing his pants. Although he had no clue why, nearly all of his great baseball abilities had been drained from his once-muscular body.
On May 2, after a day off, Gehrig informed Yankees manager Joe McCarthy that he was benching himself for the good of the team. Up to this point, McCarthy didn't have the heart to do it himself.
"The job is yours when you are ready to take it back," McCarthy informed a teary eyed Gehrig.
That day in Detroit, for the first time in 2,130 games, No. 4 would not take his place at first base for the New York Yankees.
Most history books will tell you that the career of the great Lou Gehrig ended on that day in early May. Few people actually know the rest if the story. With the same guts and spirit that had sustained Gehrig through those 2,130 consecutive games, there was still one more ounce of baseball left to be squeezed out of his pain-racked body.
As team captain, Gehrig would continue to suit up and travel with the team, often taking that day's lineup card to home plate.
The Yankees had just finished an American League series against the Browns in St. Louis on June 11, just a little over a month after what was thought to Gehrig's final game. Upon leaving St. Louis, their next stop was across the state of Missouri to play an exhibition game against their top farm team, the Kansas City Blues. Featured in that exhibition game at Kansas City's Ruppert Field that day were two DiMaggio brothers in center field -- Joe for the Yankees and Vince for the Blues. Future Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto also suited up for the Blues at shortstop. Even with all the other great stars on the field that day, the record crowd of 23,684 was there to see one man -- Lou Gehrig.
Gehrig was in tremendous pain on that hot summer day in 1939, but he did not want to let the fans down. For three innings, Gehrig managed his defensive duties at first base without an error. In the third inning, Gehrig took the long walk from the dugout to home plate. Very few fans even knew that he was sick. Like those fans at the game in on June 1, 1925, when the historic streak of the Iron Horse started, these fans were oblivious to the fact that they were witnessing the last at-bat of a baseball legend. Like a warm summer breeze that goes unnoticed, a weak grounder to second ended the playing career of Gehrig.
At Kansas City's Union Station, as the Yankees boarded a train to take them back to New York, Gehrig would travel North to keep the June 13 appointment at the Mayo Clinic that his wife Eleanor had set for him. Six days later on June 19, Lou's 36th birthday, the diagnosis was complete. Gehrig was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). On June 21, the New York Yankees announced Gehrig's retirement and set aside July 4 as Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium.
Few baseball fans will ever forget that Independence Day, as Lou Gehrig proclaimed himself, "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." History has seemed to have forgotten that less than one month earlier the journey of the "Iron Horse of baseball" came to an end unceremoniously on a hot, dusty day in Kansas City.
Dave Webster is a Royals Hall of Fame and Kauffman Stadium Tour Docent. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.