Lou Gehrig’s Streak Should Have Ended at Navin Field — Not Briggs Stadium

Most people familiar with the near-mythical story of Lou Gehrig know that his consecutive-game playing streak came to an end in Detroit on May 2, 1939. That afternoon, the Yankees first baseman, suffering from what was later diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, voluntarily pulled himself from the lineup, ending a 2,130-game streak that had started on June 1, 1925. What almost nobody remembers is that the streak—the cornerstone of Gehrig’s legend and a source of immense pride to Lou—should have ended five summers earlier at Navin Field. If not for a stunt and some true grit on the part of Gehrig, the Iron Horse’s remarkable run would have been snapped at 1,426 games on July 14, 1934.

Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig sits on the steps of the visitor's dugout at Briggs Stadium after pulling himself out of the line up on May 2, 1939.

On July 13, 1934, the Yankees were playing an important series with the first-place Tigers. In the second inning, Gehrig slapped a single off Tommy Bridges and then fell down halfway to first. He barely made the bag. The following inning, when he could hardly bend over in the field, he signaled to manager Joe McCarthy that he couldn’t continue. Jack Saltzgaver ran out to replace him.

New York’s trainer worked on Gehrig into the night, administering heat treatments and massages to his stiff back. Lou barely slept. The general feeling was that he was suffering from lumbago, a form of rheumatism. It was a convenient and logical explanation for the occasional pains he had been experiencing in his back and leg muscles for the last couple of years. Come the morning of July 14, he was soaked in sweat and hardly able to move. But he reported to Navin Field and talked McCarthy into letting him play. “I don’t think I can go nine today,” he said, wincing. “But I’d like to keep the streak alive, Joe, because I’m sure I can play tomorrow. Would you do me a favor? Let me lead off. I’ll take my first bat, then I’ll get out for the day.”

McCarthy penciled in Gehrig as shortstop and leadoff man on his lineup card. Wracked with pain, Lou hobbled up to the plate and lunged at the first pitch from Vic Sorrell. Remarkably, the ball popped off his bat and landed in short right field for a single. Gehrig dragged himself to first, after which Red Rolfe was inserted as a pinch runner. Rolfe stayed in the game to play shortstop while Saltzgaver took over first-base duties. Without Lou, the Yanks blew a 9-1 lead and lost a wild contest, 12-11, allowing the Tigers to move back into first place by a half-game.

The gimmick kept Lou’s streak alive at 1,427 games, but cheapened it in the eyes of some. “Instead of enhancing his reputation for durability, he sullied it,” insisted Bud Shaver of the Detroit Times. “He also impugned his reputation for sensibility. If a man is too ill to play, the sensible thing to do is refrain from playing. His physical handicaps are apt to be disastrous for his teammates. Records preserved in the manner in which Gehrig preserved his at Navin Field prove nothing except the absurdity of most records.”

The following day, a now healthy Gehrig played a full nine innings, collecting three doubles off Schoolboy Rowe. But Shaver’s criticism begs the question: Just how “pure” of a record was Gehrig’s iron-man streak?

In retrospect, not very. Unlike Cal Ripken, Jr., who shattered Gehrig’s streak by playing in 2,632 consecutive games between 1982 and 1998 and rarely took an inning off, Gehrig played every inning of every game in only one season, 1931. In addition to his farcical game in Detroit, the “Iron Horse” was substituted for on nearly 70 other occasions. Gehrig never maintained that he had played every minute of every game, and he never felt that he had to apologize for the streak’s somewhat controversial nature. This included the time Yankees general manager Ed Barrow reportedly called off a home game on account of rain, even though there was scarcely a cloud in the sky. The extra day of rest allowed Gehrig, who was nursing an attack of lumbago, to crawl out of bed and resume his streak the following afternoon.

In any event, the streak really wasn’t the core of what Lou Gehrig was all about, simply the by-product. Shaped by self-discipline, he played, not only because he was genuinely passionate about the sport, but because that was what he was paid to do. If he was suffering from an injury or a cold, he plunged ahead anyway, a good soldier in good cheer, just as he had since he was a small boy lugging loads of wash home for his immigrant German mother in New York. He played with torn muscles, colds, concussions, headaches, stiff backs, and fractured fingers. To play was one thing. But to try, to give it one’s all despite the obstacles at hand—well, that was the true measure of a person’s character. For that alone, Gehrig—who died seven years after the controversial episode at Navin Field—deserved every bit of applause he received during his tragically truncated life.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.