Aside from the horde of Japanese beetles terrorizing the ballplayers, it was a picture-perfect July day at Yankee Stadium. The red, white and blue bunting was swaying in the breeze, and baseball royalty -- Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander -- sat in box seats among the nearly 63,000 fans who had turned out for the seventh annual All-Star Game. National Leaguers Joe Medwick, Bucky Walters and Lon Warneke got their hands on some cameras and took pictures of the crowd during warm-ups. The Bronx faithful booed Bill Terry every time the Giants’ skipper poked his head out of the visitors’ dugout. The contingent of NL fans on hand wondered whether their side had a shot: With six AL starters wearing Yankees uniforms, it hardly seemed fair.
Any concern regarding the game’s outcome fell by the wayside, however, when the American League’s honorary captain emerged from the home dugout. Wearing his familiar No. 4 pinstriped jersey that, one week earlier, team president Ed Barrow announced would never be worn by another Yankees player, Lou Gehrig ambled slowly toward home plate to deliver the official lineup card to the umpires. Putting aside any rooting differences, the bipartisan crowd rose to its feet and delivered a thunderous ovation.
Gehrig then limped back to the dugout and watched the game from the bench. The first Midsummer Classic held at Yankee Stadium would be the first All-Star celebration without Gehrig on the roster.
Much attention was paid to the World’s Fair that was held in New York that summer, but in 1939, the Yankees put on their own exhibition of wonder and amazement. Nearly perfect in every facet of the game, the Yanks were an extraordinary team from top to bottom.
“My ball club hasn’t been able to do it so far, but they can be beaten,” Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack told reporter Rud Rennie that May. “You have to play perfect baseball to do it. Make one mistake, and they’ve got you. But a team that hustles and does not make any mistakes can beat them.”
How dominant were the 1939 Yankees? In the entire history of baseball, they remain the only team to outscore their opponents by more than 400 runs (967-556).
Had the Yankees faded in 1939, there would have been plenty of excuses. They had already made history in 1938, winning a third straight World Series in such convincing fashion that during the Game 4 clincher over the Cubs, bored fans drew admonishment from the Yankee Stadium public-address announcer for tearing up their scorecards and littering the field with confetti. Lefty Gomez, who had won 21 games in 1937 and 18 in ’38, fought through injuries all season long, finishing 12-8 in 1939. Fellow future Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio caught his spike in the wet outfield grass while tracking down a fly ball in late April, suffering a muscle tear in his right leg that sidelined him for more than a month.
But the Yankees’ no-nonsense manager, Joe McCarthy, would not allow his team to lose sight of its goal. To say Marse Joe ran a tight ship would be an understatement. Peanuts were not allowed in the dugout or bullpen -- the shells made too much mess. At the beginning of every Spring Training, he would tell his players that their curfew was midnight. He didn’t need to mention it again. The intense 52-year-old skipper had established a culture of discipline, where young players, no matter how talented they were, followed the veterans’ lead.
“It was McCarthy who created what is now regarded as ‘the Yankee type’ of ballplayer,” Arthur Daley wrote in The New York Times years later. “He instilled in his heroes a fierce pride in their abilities and the sublime belief of their invincibility. He weeded out the rowdies, the carousers, the roughnecks, the clubhouse lawyers, the trouble-makers.”
“He was always trying to be perfect in everything, on and off the field,” Gomez once told writer Maury Allen. “He thought playing for the Yankees called for being the same kind of gentleman who would work in a bank.”
McCarthy had all the qualities of a great manager -- attention to detail, an eye for talent, the ability to develop young players, unquestionable knowledge of the game, mastery of in-game strategy, the wherewithal to deal with players’ psyches. Although he never reached the Majors as a player, the quiet yet authoritative McCarthy had navigated nearly every possible scenario over his long career as a minor league player and big-league manager. But nothing could have prepared him for the adversity he faced in 1939, when his captain, the player he adored more than any other he managed, could barely summon the strength to swing a bat.
Gehrig had started slowly before. Just one year earlier, in 1938, the Iron Horse got off to a 1-for-24 start. But by May 31 of that season, when he played in his 2,000th consecutive game, he had raised his average up to .277, and no one doubted that the 35-year-old would push his record streak to 2,500 games or beyond.
Although Gehrig would later say that he tired around midseason in 1938, he finished strong, batting over .300 in September to finish at .295 for the season with 29 homers, 114 RBI and 116 runs scored. In the World Series, he collected just four hits -- all singles -- and did not drive in a run, but it hardly mattered in the Yankees’ dismantling of the Cubs.
Gehrig accepted a $3,000 pay cut to $34,000 in February 1939, and as training commenced in St. Petersburg, Florida, it became apparent that Larrupin’ Lou was not the same player he had been for so long. He was sluggish at first base, and his power at the plate had vanished. With his reflexes diminished, McCarthy privately worried about Gehrig’s ability to avoid getting beaned with an inside pitch.
“Everyone … who saw Gehrig in action this spring agreed he looked terrible,” Rennie wrote in the New York-Herald Tribune. “He is the team’s No. 1 problem. It is a question whether he can hold his job through the season. The question cannot be answered until the season gets under way.”
Publicly, McCarthy was staunchly in Gehrig’s corner, stating that the first baseman would remain in the lineup as long as he so desired. And so, after a season-opening series at Washington was rained out, the Yankees launched their 1939 campaign on April 20 at Yankee Stadium against the Boston Red Sox. Making his big-league debut and batting sixth for the visitors was right fielder Ted Williams -- the only time he and Gehrig appeared in the same game. In the fifth, after Jake Powell’s RBI triple, DiMaggio was intentionally walked by Lefty Grove to get to Gehrig, who hit into an inning-ending double play. “From the press box, it looked like rubbing it in,” Joe Williams of the World-Telegram wrote. But Bill Dickey homered, Red Ruffing twirled the second Opening Day shutout in Yankees history, and the Yanks won, 2-0.
Behind the scenes, the Yankees players struggled to comprehend what was happening to Gehrig. They tried to keep the mood light, but when he would slip and fall in the clubhouse or need to clutch a banister tightly to ascend a short flight of steps, they would avert their eyes.
The fans, showing their deep respect for their hero, cheered Gehrig mightily every time he came up to the plate. After going 2-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored in an 8-4 win over Philadelphia on April 25, Gehrig told reporters, “I wish you would tell everybody how much I appreciate their kindness.”
Those were the final runs -- both batted in and scored --- of Gehrig’s remarkable career. Five days later, after coming to bat four times with runners on base and failing to get a hit against the Senators, dropping his average to .143, he decided to ask McCarthy to bench him.
On May 2 in Detroit, Gehrig brought the Yankees’ lineup card -- the first one since 1925 that didn’t have his name on it -- out to home plate. The man he replaced at first base all those years earlier, Wally Pipp, was among the 11,379 fans at Briggs Stadium who stood and roared in admiration when it was announced that Gehrig would not be playing. After 2,130 consecutive games, the streak was over.
“His greatest record doesn’t show in the book,” John Kieran wrote in The New York Times the next day. “It was the absolute reliability of Henry Louis Gehrig. He could be counted upon. He was there every day at the ball park bending his back and ready to break his neck to win for his side. He was there day after day and year after year. He never sulked or whined or went into a pet or a huff. He was the answer to a manager’s dream.”
Every last man in the Yankees dugout -- even the imperturbable McCarthy -- was moved by the scene in Detroit. When their leader returned to the dugout with tears in his eyes, no one knew what to say. As Gehrig took a long drink from the water fountain, his teammates sat frozen, unsure whether to console him or let him be. According to the book Lefty: An American Odyssey, Gomez was the first one to speak.
“Hell, Lou,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear. “It took 15 years to get you out of there. Sometimes I’m out in 15 minutes.”
The tension was broken, but the poignancy of the moment was not lost on anyone.
“The movie writers are always writing about drama,” McCarthy later told The Sporting News. “But they missed the most moving episode of my time in baseball when they omitted that dugout scene in the picture they made about Gehrig.”
It wouldn’t be the last teary-eyed moment of 1939 for the Pride of the Yankees.
With Gehrig looking on from the bench -- where he would remain stationed, in uniform and on the active roster, supporting his teammates, for the rest of the season -- the Yankees “attacked the Tigers as if in tribute to their fallen hero” that day, Stanley Cohen wrote in Yankees 1936–39, Baseball’s Greatest Dynasty. Gehrig’s replacement at first base, Babe Dahlgren, doubled as part of a six-run first inning and homered in the third to make it 8-0. Rookie left fielder Charlie Keller, making his first career start, drove in six on a homer and a bases-loaded triple. Tommy Henrich, playing center, and right fielder George Selkirk also homered, and Ruffing put up zeroes for six innings in a 22-2 shellacking.
With Gehrig and the injured DiMaggio out of the lineup, the Yankees nonetheless devoured their opponents, winning 27 of their next 31 games, including 12 straight. “It was as if they had banked a store of resources, preserving it for a time when it might best be put to use,” Cohen wrote. Shortstop Frank Crosetti and third baseman Red Rolfe -- who wore uniform Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, and hit first and second in the batting order in all 152 games -- were steady contributors, Rolfe pacing the American League in runs scored (139), hits (213) and doubles (46). Dickey, the 32-year-old rifle-armed catcher noted for his ability to handle a pitching staff, had his last great season in 1939, clubbing 24 homers with 105 RBI. In a late May series against the A’s, Selkirk, who would lead the Yankees with a .452 on-base percentage, homered off right-hander Bob Joyce four times.
“It’s going to be a great race, right down to the wire with three or four teams in the fight,” White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes told the New York Herald-Tribune’s Arthur Patterson in May. “But I mean for second place.”
McCarthy used just 12 pitchers all season -- seven of whom reached double figures in victories, with Ruffing (21-7) leading the way. Johnny Murphy, one of baseball’s first elite closers, would have led the Majors in saves (19) had that statistic been in vogue. Rookie southpaw Marius Russo made his debut in June, and from Aug. 16 through the end of the season, he completed and won all seven of his starts, two of them shutouts, with a two-inning save mixed in for good measure.
The Yankees were 33-9 with an 8½-game lead over Boston when DiMaggio returned to the starting lineup on June 7. The “Yankee Clipper,” as he was dubbed by Yankees radio announcer Arch McDonald that season, picked up where he left off, flirting with a .400 average while helping the Yanks go 12-2 to extend their lead to 13 games.
Never far from the players’ thoughts, however, was their legendary captain whose fate was still very much unknown.
Baseball’s centennial season, commemorated with a patch on all players’ sleeves, included the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, on June 12, 1939. That same day, one of its soon-to-be denizens came to the stark realization that his playing days were over for good.
Gehrig had held out hope that, with some rest, his body might recover. But when he attempted to participate in an exhibition against the Yankees’ top farm team, the Kansas City Blues, he fell backward catching a line drive and left the game in the third inning -- his final appearance in a baseball game. His wife, Eleanor, checked him into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the next day, where Gehrig underwent a battery of tests.
On June 19, his 36th birthday, the Iron Horse received grim news. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurological disease that inhibits the brain’s ability to initiate and control muscle movement. Given the famed slugger’s celebrity status, the disease would come to be known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It took his life less than two years later, on June 2, 1941, and to this day, no cure has been found.
After the Mayo Clinic report became public, many struggled to fully understand it. “A sense persisted that Gehrig’s condition was akin to that of President Roosevelt’s infantile paralysis (polio), hence one that would end his baseball career but not his life,” Alan H. Levy wrote in Joe McCarthy: Architect of the Yankee Dynasty.
At the suggestion of his doctors, Gehrig stayed with the team, which helped keep his mind off the disease and inspired his mates. He never let it get him down, at least not publicly.
“I have to accept the bitter with the sweet,” he mused upon rejoining the team June 22. “If this is my finish, I’ll take it.”
On June 26, the Yankees played the first night game in franchise history -- a 3-2 loss at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park to an Athletics team that had been 0-8 against the Yanks that year -- beginning a cold snap that cut their 13-game lead in half by the All-Star break. Meanwhile, preparations were being made for Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, to be held at Yankee Stadium between games of a July 4 doubleheader against the Senators.
When the day arrived, Gehrig was unsure what to say -- or whether to speak at all. He had prepared some notes the night before, but after an emotionally draining 40-minute ceremony in which a litany of guests -- including Babe Ruth and the entire 1927 Yankees team -- showered Gehrig with heartfelt gifts and words of praise, he felt he couldn’t go on.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the emcee, Sid Mercer, said to the crowd of 61,808, “Lou has asked me to thank you all for him. He is too moved to speak.”
But McCarthy, thankfully, stepped in and convinced his captain to say just a few words.
“For the past two weeks, you have been reading about a bad break,” Gehrig began, his voice echoing throughout the cavernous, silent stadium. “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
After thanking nearly everyone who had been a part of his career, he concluded by saying that, “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.” A thunderous ovation followed as the band struck up the German folk song, “Du, du liegst mir im Herzen” (“You, you are in my heart”).
“Gehrig rose to dramatic heights, naturally, spontaneously, from the soul and the heart,” Joe Williams wrote. “No Barrymore could have touched the hearts of his listeners more deeply than Gehrig did when, with broken voice and tear-stained eyes, he said, ‘I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’ It was a dramatic emotional triumph that could have been achieved only by a tremendously sincere and grateful man.”
The All-Star Game proved to be just what the Yankees needed to get their mojo back. “Yanks Too Much For National All-Stars” read the headline in the July 12 edition of The Reading (Pa.) Times. Boston’s Jimmie Foxx, the reigning AL MVP and batting champ, remained on the bench, while DiMaggio homered in a 3-1 win. The stars of the game were two youngsters: 20-year-old Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller, who entered the game with the bases loaded in the sixth and induced a ground-ball double play from Arky Vaughan before firing three more scoreless frames; and 24-year-old Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon, who made three outstanding defensive plays.
“There is a star performing today who can play second base as brilliantly, perhaps, as it ever has or ever will be played,” Gayle Talbot wrote for The Associated Press.
In the second half of July, the Yankees ran off winning streaks of eight and five games. On July 25, DiMaggio clubbed a 450-foot homer into the left-field bleachers, joining Hank Greenberg as the only players to reach that far-off section of Yankee Stadium and helping rookie Atley Donald improve to 12-0. August was more of the same, as the Yankees fashioned a 10-game winning streak, authored an eight-inning 21-0 victory at Shibe Park and saw DiMaggio -- who tallied 53 RBI during the month -- make what The New York Times called “the greatest catch ever” at Yankee Stadium, hauling in a blast off Greenberg’s bat, a defensive gem that, 40 years later, the Tigers’ Hall of Famer maintained was the finest he had ever seen.
No American Leaguer had batted .400 for a season since Detroit’s Harry Heilmann in 1923. On Sept. 10, DiMaggio was hitting .409 when an eye infection caused his left eye to swell nearly shut and blurred his vision. Although the Yankees had a 17½-game lead, McCarthy refused to let his star center fielder rest. Joe D finished at .381 -- still second in Yankees history to Ruth’s .393 mark in 1923 -- and won his first of three AL MVP Awards, but it bothered him greatly to miss out on a chance at .400.
Still, after clinching their 11th American League pennant on Sept. 16 and finishing the regular season with a 106-45 record, the Yankees were headed to their fourth straight World Series.
If there was one knock on the 1939 Yankees, it was that they failed to match the mark of the ’38 Yanks, who deployed just four pitchers in a four-game sweep of the Cubs. The ’39 team needed seven arms to dispatch the Reds in four straight.
Ruffing and the Reds’ Paul Derringer, in a repeat of the All-Star Game pitching matchup 85 days earlier, locked horns at Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the World Series. Both went the distance, with the Yankees winning, 2-1, on Dickey’s walk-off single. The game lasted 93 minutes.
The next day, Dahlgren doubled and homered, and Monte Pearson took a no-hitter into the eighth, blanking the Reds, 4-0. That game took just 87 minutes. The World Series was three hours old, and the Reds were down, 2 games to none.
An ailing Lefty Gomez started Game 3 at Crosley Field, but the torn muscle on his right side that he suffered in late September was too painful, and he left after one inning. No matter. Keller’s pair of two-run homers and Dickey’s solo shot provided more than enough scoring for the Yanks to take a commanding 3-games-to-none lead.
The Reds tallied their first extra-base hit of the Series in Game 4 and led, 4-2, heading into the ninth, but they were undone by a famously bizarre defensive meltdown. An error by Reds shortstop Billy Myers allowed one run to score, and Gordon then knocked in DiMaggio with the tying run. In the 10th, Keller reached on another error by Myers to put runners at the corners for DiMaggio.
Ernie Lombardi, who caught Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters the year prior, called for a pitch from fellow All-Star Bucky Walters that DiMaggio smacked into right field, scoring Crosetti easily. But Ival Goodman bobbled the ball, prompting Keller to dash for home. The throw and Keller arrived at the plate simultaneously, resulting in a dust-up that left Lombardi dazed and the ball unsecured. DiMaggio, hustling all the way, took advantage of “Lombardi’s Snooze” and chugged home safely, as well.
“One can write of these powerful, amazing Yankees only in superlatives,” Fred Lieb wrote in the Oct. 12, 1939, edition of The Sporting News. “They have accomplished feats which only a year ago would have been considered unbelievable. In a game in which the human element is a vital factor, they have come closer to perfection than any other club in the first 100 years of baseball. Perhaps in another 100 years the feats of this team will have become legendary. Fans still unborn, thumbing through the records of this decade, will ask: ‘Could a team have been that good?’”
To win at a .702 clip and sweep the World Series for a fourth straight championship takes a special group of players. For them to do so while watching an iconic teammate vanish before their eyes is unfathomable. The question, 80 years later, is not whether a team could have been that good. Rather, has any team been better?