Last year Richard Sandomir of the New York Times published “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.” The book comes out in paperback this week. To mark the new edition, Sandomir has written about the day Gehrig, his body failing him due to ALS and his skills in decline, decided to put an end to his consecutive games streak and, at the same time, an end to his career.
By Richard Sandomir
For Lou Gehrig, the Yankees’ spring training of 1939 was a grim slog. His body was failing for reasons he could not fathom. What used to feel natural, almost easy — slashing a double, scooping an errant throw — had become so difficult. The whispers had grown louder that he was old and nearing his end, that he had played too many consecutive games. His hitting was feeble, his fielding no better.
Speaking in St. Petersburg to John Kieran, a friendly columnist for The New York Times who would not admit his pal was already in a steep decline, Gehrig said, “Yes, sir, the pallbearers have me dead and buried.”
Yankees manager Joe McCarthy didn’t want to be the one to tell Lou to sit. He was Lou Gehrig after all but even McCarthy knew he was no longer the Iron Horse. Marse Joe would not easily concede Lou was failing physically. Yet he set off a kerfuffle in late March by starting Tommy Henrich at first base in an exhibition game on the road in Haines City. Another day, McCarthy gestured at Lou during fielding practice, guiding reporters to an all-too-obvious reality.
“Watch Lou,” he told reporters as fielding practice began.
“Lou looked very bad,” Frank Graham of The New York Sun wrote in his 1942 biography of Gehrig. “He would go down for a ground ball hit straight at him and the ball would go through him. Or he would come up with the ball and throw it to second or third base and then start for first base to take a return throw but he would be woefully slow.” Behind first base, one fan yelled: “What do you want McCarthy to do, burn that uniform off you?”
Gehrig had played 2,122 consecutive games by the time the 1939 season started on April 20. He thought that he might recover some of his lost skills once the games turned meaningful. But Lou was terrible. In 28 at-bats, he had no home runs. Just four singles, two of them on April 25 when he drove in his only run.
The Yankees were playing the Philadelphia A’s that day in the Bronx. Lou singled Joe DiMaggio to second in the fourth, continuing a rally that culiminated in a three-run home run by George Selkirk. Then, in the eighth, he hit a Texas Leaguer that landed in the outfield for a single, but he was tagged out standing up when he tried to turn it into a double. Perhaps it was the instinct of better days that compelled him to try to stretch out the single. But his body, diminished by still-to-be-diagnosed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, could not fulfill his wishes.
Five days later, after going hitless against the Washington Senators, he heard a teammate complain, “Why doesn’t he quit? He’s through.”
A more telling moment in the game occurred in the ninth inning when he could not make an unassisted out on a grounder to first base and had to flip the ball to reliever Johnny Murphy.
“When I returned to the bench,” Gehrig said afterward, “the boys said, `Great play, Lou.’ I said to myself, ‘Heavens, has it reached that stage?’ ”
He was shaken. In her memoir, “My Luke and I,” his wife Eleanor, recalled him telling her: “They don’t think I can do it anymore. Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. But they’re talking about it now, they’re even writing about it. And when they’re not talking, I can almost feel what they’re thinking.”
All that was left was to tell McCarthy it was over.
On the morning of May 2, before the start of a two-game series in Detroit against the Tigers, Lou spotted McCarthy at the cigar counter of the downtown Book-Cadillac Hotel and they rode the elevator to the manager’s room.
He told McCarthy that he was benching himself.
“I’ll let him take a rest,” McCarthy told reporters before the game, “and then when he is feeling better, I’ll put him back in to see how he goes. Meantime, I will give Babe Dahlgren every opportunity to win a regular job.”
It was not, apparently, what the young Dahlgren wanted — at least not yet. Before the game, when Gehrig and Dahlgren posed for photographers, Dahlgren begged him to change his mind. “You’ve put me in a terrible spot,” Dahlgren recalled his conversation years later to Sports Illustrated. But Gehrig slapped Dahlgren on the back and told him: “Go on out there and knock in some runs.”
Lou brought the lineup card – with Dahlgren batting eighth – to the umpires at home plate. Tigers announcer Ty Tyson told the crowd Gehrig’s consecutive games streak was over.
“Give a good ballplayer a good — ” Tyson said, but fans cut him off with rousing cheers. Lou tipped his cap and headed to the bench.
Dahlgren had a sensational game, hitting a double and a home run as the Yankees whacked the Tigers, 22-2.
But Gehrig was the news because his streak was over, not because anyone knew he would never play again. No one knew what had caused his mighty body to weaken. “With a little rest he should begin to feel his oats again,” Kieran wrote. “One or two days of rest may lift the weight of years from his brawny shoulders.”
After the game, Lou wrote a letter to Eleanor on Book-Cadillac stationery, with its tiny corporate crest above its name. He still had hope, but it was tempered.
“As for me,” he wrote, “the road may come to a dead end here, but why should it?—Seems like our backs are to the wall now, but there usually comes a way out—where, and what, I know not, but who can tell that it might not lead right out to greater things—Time will tell—”
There was never really any room for hope. Lou got weaker and weaker. Following a week of testing at the Mayo Clinic in mid-June, he was diagnosed with ALS—forcing him to retire. On July 4, when he made his “luckiest man” speech at Yankee Stadium, he looked still worse, his flannel uniform noticeably too large for his shrinking frame.
And on June 2, 1941, he died at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Eleanor told The Sporting News that he “just died away by inches, every day a little bit more and if you saw him at the end of a week you couldn’t remember what he had looked like at the beginning of the week.”
It took only six weeks for Eleanor to make a deal with Samuel Goldwyn to produce The Pride of the Yankees, starring Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright as Lou and Eleanor.
Like nearly all films that are based on a true story, Pride took liberties with the facts. For its recreation of the Yankees-Tigers game on May 2, 1939, the film told a somewhat different tale.
In the Pride version, the drama of Lou benching himself occurs in the sixth inning with the Yankees leading 4-2. Cooper awaits his at-bat in the Yankee dugout, flexing his stiff fingers, looking at them as if he cannot believe how they had betrayed him, then tucking them in his belt. When he moves to the on-deck circle, he lifts two bats to his shoulder, looking concerned, as if he doubted his ability to lift them for long. Like nearly all the baseball scenes in Pride, this scene was shot at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles.
When the third out is made, Cooper trudges from the on-deck circle to the dugout, passing Wright in a box seat, then catcher Bill Dickey, his close friend, who played himself.
“Joe,” Cooper tells Harry Harvey, who plays McCarthy, “you better send someone in for me. I can’t make it anymore.”
Harvey, his head down, asks, “Sure you want it that way?”
“Yup,” Cooper says with the terseness of the western star he was.
Harvey turns his neck and calls on Lou’s replacement.
“Dahlgren, get in there at first,” he says.
As Cooper and Rip Russell, who plays Dahlgren, pass on the dugout steps, Cooper says, “Good luck.”
Cooper passes a gantlet of his teammates, walking slowly, haltingly. He doesn’t look at them. And they avoid eye contact with Cooper who settles on a seat apart from his teammates when the stadium announcer says, “Dahlgren, now playing first base for New York. Replacing Gehrig.”
The camera zooms in on Cooper, who stares out at the field. His eyes glisten before lowering his head until we only see the top of his cap.
The flaw in the scene is that if Gehrig had pulled himself out of the game in the sixth inning, he would have been playing in his 2,131st game.
By this point in Pride, Cooper had fully absorbed Gehrig. It mattered little that six weeks of tutoring from Lefty O’Doul had not transformed the lanky, right-handed Cooper – who had never played baseball before – into a clone of the muscular, left-handed Gehrig. With only a dozen or so minutes of baseball action in Pride, Cooper’s mediocrity with a bat and glove is a minor consideration.
What matters about his portrayal is that when he demonstrates his character’s panic at the first twinges of ALS or shows the physical weaknesses that force him out of the Yankee lineup, Cooper reacts as we believe Gehrig did.
Richard Sandomir is the author of “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.” Now an obituaries writer for The New York Times, he wrote about sports media for 25 years.