Sports

Revisiting death of Yankees legend Lou Gehrig 80 years later

Editor’s note: The Post’s Mike Vaccaro recounts the death of Lou Gehrig — who died 80 years ago Wednesday — in his book, “1941: The Greatest Year In Sports.”

As great as he’d been, as superb a career as he’d built for himself, the Yankees still weren’t Joe DiMaggio’s team as 1941 dawned. That, sadly, could never happen as long as the captain emeritus, Lou Gehrig, was still alive.

The Yankees had managed to shake off Gehrig’s stunning retirement in 1939, going on to win 106 games and a fourth straight World Series, but in 1940 his absence (and the rapid aging of other key team members) hobbled them badly. DiMaggio wasn’t able to carry the Yankees by himself, leading some to wonder if he could indeed follow the pathway established by Gehrig, and before him Babe Ruth.

Gehrig did his part to try to change that perception. In February 1941, just before spring training, he’d invited John Kieran, the sports columnist for the New York Times, to his home on Delafield Avenue in the Bronx for a chat. During their conversation, Gehrig implored Yankees fans to recognize that DiMaggio “may be the best you’ll ever see here. He’s that good. He’s that strong.” It wasn’t in DiMaggio’s nature to vocally change the culture around the Yankees, though. He would wait his turn.

On June 2, in Detroit, it arrived in an agonizing rush.

The Yankees filed into the Book-Cadillac Hotel in a cheerful mood, having taken two out of three from the front-running Indians in Cleveland. Phil Rizzuto and Joe Gordon had led the team in boisterous sing-along on the train ride from Ohio to Michigan, with Rizzuto, the popular rookie, absorbing a relentless ribbing over a flashy suit he’d purchased in nearby Canton.

Just past 11 o’clock, as taxis started dumping the Yankees off in groups of two and three in front of the Book-Cadillac, the hotel manager, William Chittenden, approached Joe McCarthy, the Yankees’ manager, with a long, somber face.

“I’ve got bad news for you, Mr. McCarthy,” Chittenden said.

“Bad news?” Marse Joe asked.

“Yes. We’ve just heard it over the radio. Lou Gehrig is dead.”

Lou Gehrig
Lou Gehrig
Getty Images

George Selkirk, a veteran Yankees outfielder, was standing nearby, as were pitchers Johnny Murphy and Lefty Gomez. They were too stunned to cry, too bewildered to even move. McCarthy, the cigar in his hands quavering between his fingers, found a chair in the corner of the lobby. He shook his head.

“Is there any way the news isn’t true?” he asked.

“I’m afraid not, sir. It’s all over the news.”

Selkirk started tearing the slip showing his room number to pieces. Gomez looked off into space.

A few minutes later, catcher Bill Dickey, Gehrig’s former roommate and one of his closest friends, came bounding into the lobby after visiting a neighboring drugstore for his nightly malted milkshake, a ritual he used to share all the time with Gehrig. He saw the looks on his teammates’ faces and didn’t even have to ask what was wrong.

An eerie sense of déjà vu filled him; it was in this very hotel exactly 25 months earlier — May 2, 1939 — that Gehrig had made the decision to take himself out of the lineup after playing 2,130 consecutive games, approaching McCarthy at the Book-Cadillac’s cigar shop. As they rode the elevator to McCarthy’s room Gehrig told his manager he wouldn’t be playing that day. This was before Gehrig learned there was something gravely wrong with him; all he knew was that his skills as a baseball player had all but vanished.

That night, in their room, Dickey had assured him, “All you need is a little rest. You’ve got the time coming to you, after all. You deserve a little time off.”

Joe DiMaggio
Joe DiMaggio
Getty Images

Was that really only two years ago?

“My God, I only spoke to Lou over the telephone a few days before we left for New York,” Dickey said. “He told me he felt fine. [Tommy] Henrich told me he had spoken to Lou, too, and had been told the same thing.”

His voice started to crack.

“I’ve lost my best friend. It’s like losing one of your own family. It’s like losing a brother.”

McCarthy, near tears, pointed to a spot in the lobby.

“It was here that Lou came to me and said, ‘Joe, I always said I’d quit when I felt I was no longer any help to the team. I’m no longer any help. When do you want me to quit?’ And I said, ‘Today.’ I was afraid he’d get hurt. His reflexes were gone. He couldn’t get out of the way of the ball. I was fond of Lou. He was not only a great ballplayer, he was a fine man.”

McCarthy and Dickey would hustle back to New York for Gehrig’s wake and funeral. The rest of the Yankees, led by DiMaggio, would carry on at Briggs Stadium, where they lost two straight, but there was a tangible sense, right away, that something had changed with the team, and with the centerfielder.

1941: The Greatest Year in Sports
1941: The Greatest Year in Sports

DiMaggio had been as devastated as everyone else by the news.

“He was a wonderful ballplayer and a great individual and he was a good influence on us young ballplayers, to whom he was always an inspiration” was his simple eulogy.

Now he quietly moved to fill the emotional void left by the departed captain. It wasn’t a job he sought, or necessarily wanted. But it was now his. Those two days in Detroit he collected three hits against the Tigers’ Dizzy Trout, Hal Newhouser and Bob Muncrief.

It increased his modest hitting streak to 21 games.

‘You All Knew Him’

Up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, some 5,000 men, women, and children solemnly filed past a bier at Christ Protestant Episcopal Church, trying to move at a respectable pace while lingering long enough to take one final look at the famous face at rest inside the casket.

Hours earlier, a few thousand others had performed the same sad ritual in Manhattan, at the Church of the Divine Paternity on Central Park West and 76th Street. Neither church was supposed to be open to the general public, both wakes were supposed to be simple, private affairs with only friends and family present, but the crush of bodies barricading both sites convinced the eminent man’s widow that the doors should be flung open and his fans be ushered in to pay their final respects.

In Manhattan, it took three hours for all the people to file past. In the Bronx, it seemed certain to take just as long.

Everyone in New York City, it seemed, wanted to say farewell to Lou Gehrig.

The body of Lou Gehrig lies on a couch in the small chapel of the Church of the Divine Paternity in 1941.
The body of Lou Gehrig lies on a couch in the small chapel of the Church of the Divine Paternity in 1941.
AP

Gehrig had hoped he would best be remembered for his accomplishments on baseball fields and in the office of the New York City Parole Commission. From 1925 until 1939, he’d played in 2,130 consecutive games for the Yankees, a staggering string of stamina that most baseball observers believed would stand as a record for all time.

And he hadn’t just shown up for work every day, either. In those 15 seasons he compiled one of the truly outstanding careers in baseball history: 493 home runs (second only to Babe Ruth on the day he retired), 1,995 runs batted in, a .340 lifetime batting average, and a .632 slugging percentage.

In his second career, as parole commissioner, he’d taken great delight in talking straight truths to the troubled teens of the city’s hardest neighborhoods, his most successful reclamation project a tough-talking kid from Manhattan’s Lower East Side named Thomas Rocco Barbella.

Later in his life, by then known as Rocky Graziano, he would win the middleweight boxing championship of the world and say of Gehrig, “If not for him, I would have wound up in the electric chair.”

Despite these splendid legacies, though, Gehrig was already destined to best be remembered as a tragic figure, felled in his prime by a largely unknown and deadly neurological disorder called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a syndrome that would henceforth be given the universally euphemistic name “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

He was only 35 years old when he was handed this death sentence at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in June 1939. And he was 17 days shy of his 38th birthday when, after months of rapid degeneration, he’d died just after 10 o’clock on the evening of June 2, 1941.

Now, one day later, an eclectic assortment of mourners gathered to say good-bye, thousands of anonymous fans and dozens of famous ones. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the dancer, was there, and so was Babe Ruth, and so were nine representatives of Commerce High School, Gehrig’s alma mater, and so was a firefighter named Patrick McDonough, who was supposed to start a family vacation that evening but said through his teardrops: “I had to pay my respects to one of the greatest men of all time.”

The next morning, June 4, before he would be buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, up in Westchester County, Lou Gehrig was memorialized at Christ Church without a eulogy.

“We need none,” Rev. Gerald V. Barry said, “because you all knew him.”

(Excerpted from “1941: The Greatest Year in Sports” by Mike Vaccaro, reprinted with permission by Doubleday Books and Penguin/Random House.)


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