On July 4th, 1939 the greatest first baseman ever to pick up a baseball bat was honored at Yankee Stadium with a day dedicated all to himself entitled, "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day," celebrating the ending of a career that would prove to be one of the most prolific in the history of the game. Gehrig, stricken with the mysterious disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), was forced from baseball because of his illness, but on that July afternoon he delivered — in his final contribution to the game he was leaving and the world he would soon depart – the most famous speech in MLB history, endearing him to every baseball fan with a consciousness of the game's history for as long as baseball is played. Seventy years later, with the affliction known more popularly as Lou Gehrig's Disease still incurable, the entirety of the MLB honored Gehrig, commemorating his career and immense courage in the face of his own mortality, largely in an effort to raise awareness of the disease that ended the legend's career and eventually his life.
As a player Gehrig was one of the most complete hitters of all time. In 14 full seasons and small slices of three others, Gehrig's numbers are nothing short of astounding. Displaying both power and the ability to hit for average like few have done in the history of the game, Gehrig posted a career batting average of .340 (17th all time) to go with his 493 home runs. Three times he led the American League in dingers during the era of Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Mel Ott, and shockingly, five times he led the AL in RBIs — batting behind Babe Ruth — for a career total of 1995, good enough for fifth all time behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Cap Anson, and Barry Bonds. With Ruth at second and Gehrig at fifth on this list, the commentary about the Yankees' run production from that era is obvious and yet still startling even to those with an awareness of Murderer's Row.
But Gehrig's prowess at the plate was not limited to the long ball and a high batting average. Lou's career OBP percentage of .447 is good enough for fifth all time, leading the league five times. Gehrig was on base with a clockwork-like consistency, and was powerfully productive in that same regard, posting a 1.080 career OPS, third all time, and a fourth-best all-time 179 OPS+ behind only Ruth, Williams, and Bonds.
At his retirement Gehrig was (and still is) statistically the greatest first basemen ever and his numbers have held up well, even through the steroid era. Lou's 23 grand slams are still the most all time for any player and he possesses the top totals among first basemen for RBIs, consecutive 120+ RBI seasons, OBP, walks, slugging percentage, and extra base hits. Gehrig also holds a number of single season records for a first basemen including most RBIs (184), runs scored (167), extra base hits (117), total bases (447), and highest slugging percentage (.765, higher than McGwire in his 70 home run season). His entire career was incredibly proficient but at his heights, Gehrig was unrivaled by all but a few in history.
Lou was awarded the MVP award twice (1927, 1936) but unbelievably neither of those season's was inarguably his best. In 1934 — a season in which he lost out in the MVP race to Mickey Cochrane in one of the most bizarre voting outcomes in baseball awards history — Gehrig captured the Triple Crown with one of the most epic seasons a hitter has ever produced. The year was Babe Ruth's last with the Yankees as the 39-year-old slugger would be cast off to the Boston Braves for the 1935 season, his last in the show. Even with Ruth's enormous presence still felt around the clubhouse, the Yankees were now clearly Gehrig's team. And he seized the opportunity to step out of Ruth's gargantuan shadow with dynamic vigor.
That season, Gehrig clubbed a career high 49 home runs (a total he would match twice), 165 RBIs and posted a stellar .363 batting average. And while these stats alone gave him the Triple Crown, Gehrig also led the league in slugging (.706), OBP (.465), OPS (1.172), OPS+ (208), and total bases (409). Lou was hands down the best player in baseball but, in a rare occurrence for the time, it was the Tigers who won the pennant that season, possibly the reason Cochrane and his .320 batting average, two home runs, and 76 RBIs (a down season by Cochrane's lofty standards) won the MVP.
In the postseason Gehrig was no less dominating, helping to establish the Yankee legacy for October greatness. In 34 World Series games, Gehrig batted .361/.477/1.208 with 10 home runs, 35 RBIs, and 30 runs scored. Lou played in seven World Series contests with the great Yankees teams of the of the late 20s and 30s, winning six of those matchups while losing only his first in 1926 to the Cardinals, while still posting very good numbers, batting .348/.464/.899. He was held homerless but still managed to rake in 35 RBIs. Every time a modern Yankee establishes his legacy with postseason greatness (i.e. Mantle, Jackson, Jeter) he is following in the mold created by the man known as the Iron Horse.
And of course, there is the streak and the illness that ended it. Gehrig's consecutive game streak of 2,130 began as a pinch hitter in a game on June 1. 1925. It ended on May 2, 1938 when Gehrig removed himself from what would have been his 2,131st game, telling manager Joe McCarthy he was doing so "for the good of the team." The first signs of Gehrig's disease may have shown themselves in as early as 1934 when Gehrig suffered a "lumbago attack" and had to be assisted off of the field in a July 13th game. Because Gehrig sometimes described his illness as "a cold in his back," some speculate that this may have been the first sign that something was amiss with the Yankee slugger's body. Amazingly, despite this possible early onset, Gehrig was still able to capture the aforementioned Triple Crown that season.
For the next three seasons Lou Gehrig would continue to be one of the best players in the game, topping a .350 batting average in two of those three seasons, leading the league in OBP three times, slugging once, and OPS twice. Even still, Gehrig — by many accounts — was already feeling the effects of the disease that would eventually end his career. In his last great season — 1937 — Gehrig hit .351/.473/1.116, with 37 home runs, 159 RBIs, and a league leading 127 walks.
The next season though, Gehrig's decline became immediately apparent. His batting average of .295 was the first time Lou hit under .300 since 1925, his first full season in the majors. Also, his 29 home runs were the first time the future Hall of Famer missed the 30-home run plateau since he hit 27 in 1928 (although he did bat .374 with 142 RBIs that year). Even still, Gehrig posted a very good .410 OBP, a .932 OPS, and 114 RBIs. For many (in any era) this would have been a very good — probably All-Star — season. But for the man who had made a career out of regularly posting historic numbers, this stat line was an indicaton of a serious and sudden decline.
By 1939 Gehrig was rendered totally unable to play the game he loved. Participating in only eight games before benching himself, Gehrig hit .143/.273/.416 and was reportedly disturbingly feeble in the field. The 6'0", 200-pound block of granite, at only 36 years old, had mysteriously lost every ounce of the coordination, skill, and strength that had made him a legend in his own time.
From that point, the decline was sadly rapid. The Yankees announced Gehrig's retirement on June 21 and deemed July 4, 1939 Lou Gehrig Day. It would be Gehrig's final public appearance of note, but his image and his words are burned into the tapestry of baseball history forever. His articulation, a dying man calling himself the "luckiest man on the face of the earth" is still stirring today when one truly realizes how few athletes would show such selfless and self-aware grace in the face of imminent demise. Gehrig inspired with his bravery but also reinforced a moral that is usually riddled with the monotony of benign repetition. But seeing a once strong, virile athlete who performed seemingly inhuman feats upon the diamond, accepting his death and acknowledging his blessings even while confronting the limited span of his life is the manifestation of the moral that on some spiritual or psychological level is, at the very least, healthy for one's character and quality of life and at the most, an axiom of existence.
After his death on June 2, 1941, Lou's wife Eleanor Gehrig — never re-marrying — fought tirelessly in support of ALS research. But 70 years after that historic speech thrust ALS into the national consciousness, the battle is still being waged. As Major League Baseball uses its public profile to bring attention and hopefully funding, to help combat a still incurable disease that killed one of their own, July 4th, 2009 has proved a special day for both baseball and humanity, two entities that rarely see a cross section in the modern day, but never have been more connected than in the life of Henry Louis Gehrig.