"I tired midseason. I don't know why, but I just couldn't get going again," Gehrig said at the end of the '38 season. The
slide into this tiredness prompted Gehrig and his wife, Eleanor, to play a "guessing game," as Eleanor Gehrig called it, trying
to pinpoint the reason(s). By the beginning of the '39 season, everyone in the sports world was submitting their guesses too.
According to Eleanor, a New York specialist said it was a gallbladder condition. Eleanor feared it was a brain tumor.
Gehrig told her that he had been feeling the strength draining from his legs since age 30. Most commonly people asked him
if he had overdone it on striving for the streak. Whenever someone asked him this, he was quick to say, "No." He insisted
that he had had plenty of days off when it rained, etc.
Whatever it was causing the slump, Gehrig tried to overcome it the only way he knew how - exercising. He pushed himself
to train in the off season, lift weights after practices, build his already bulging calves by riding rollers.
Despite obvious clues that he was not displaying his usual strength, Gehrig continued carrying a shield of pride and determination.
In August of 1938, Gehrig told a reporter, "I'm all right. I can play. And I'll promise you this: when the day comes that
I don't think I can help the ball club, I won't be in there, record or no record."
There was a lot of hoopla over Gehrig's uncharacteristicly low output at bat, which was unfortunate because Gehrig
still racked up impressive statistics. Some would say that he was overreacting because the statistics he was racking up were
still well above the league average. Consider: .991 fielding percentage with 1,283 put outs and 14 errors; only 75 strikeouts
in over 758 appearances at the plate; 170 H; 114 RBI; .295 batting average; .523 slugging percentage. Even Babe Ruth
didn't do much better in his twilight years (and he wasn't dying).
So what was Gehrig complaining about? He had just cause to be worried. The man was used to slamming out somewhere between
35 and 45 homeruns every season; in '38 he ripped only 29. It was normal for him to bat in over 150 runs, have a minimum .600
slugging average, keep his batting average hovering around .340. When a player is used to earning such numbers, what true
player would not tense up if he got the numbers Gehrig did?
The shield was dropped briefly after the Yankees won the World Series in 1938 against Chicago. Normally Gehrig would have
been exhilarated; he had gone to the Series 7 times in his career and won every time. Instead, he fretted over his slump which
caused him to get a mere 4 hits in 19 plate appearances. Somehow he made crumbs into cake, bringing 4 runs. His overall slugging
percentage, though, fell to .286 (his next highest Series slugging percentage was .435, from 1926). His batting average only
slipped to a .286 - not shabby, but not Gehrig. It was his lowest Series batting average mark ever. So fret he
did, so much so that he got bombed at the victory party. For a man who rarely drank save socially, that was a blinking neon
sign of the helplessness and self-imposed sense of failure that he must have felt.
During the off season, Gehrig noticed his strength and coordination dwindling. For the first time since the slump onset,
he went to a specialist in New York, one he was familiar with (probably at the persuasion of Eleanor). The specialist's
"guess" was that Gehrig had a gallbladder condition. It didn't make much sense to Eleanor, but Gehrig was too trusting and
went with the specialist's opinion. In her autobiography, Eleanor does not reveal the name of this specialist, out of courtesy
to the man's reputation. But Gehrig biographies have cited Dr. M.W. Norton as Gehrig's primary physician when he lived in
New Rochelle, NY (the place he lived from 1933-1941). Dr. Norton knew Gehrig long before Mayo Clinic diagnosed him with ALS,
but Dr. Norton had refused to comment on his case after the diagnosis was announced to the public.
Gallbladder condition or no, Gehrig was determined to overcome it and remain reliable for his employer. He was so loyal
to the Yankees that when they re-signed him for 1939 with a salary $3,000 less than 1938's, Gehrig accepted the contract without
During spring training 1939, he still noticed a black hole in his strength. Yet, in his Gehrig way, he forced himself to
endure more physical training. It was all in vain. The muscles, the coordination were both permanently disintegrating.
Again he tried to hold a shield of pride, with maybe a bit of denial. Reporters asked him to comment on whether he had
any doubts about himself for the upcoming season. "None at all," he responded. "Why should I? What are you talking about?
I'm still a young fellow, even if I have been around in baseball for a long time. I just had a bad year last year. Anybody
can have a bad year. This year I'll make them forget about what happened in 1938." (A monstrous bit of denial, perhaps).
That may have been Gehrig's version of the slump issue; but the sportswriters, voiced through one New York-based newspaper,
had a very different version:
"Most of the baseball writers obviously feel that if this is not the end for Lou, it is at least the beginning of the end.
They do not find it pleasant to chronicle it because Lou has been a great and popular figure for fourteen years and it is
not an easy thing for them to write anything that may seem to be knocking the props from under him as he tries to hold his
job.... Whether or not Lou finally is reaching the end of his amazing career, there is no means of knowing at this range.
There have been times in the past when it seemed he couldn't go on much longer, but somehow he always managed to rally at
a critical point and go slugging on his way.... Some time he is going to go, of course, and when he does, the chances are
he will go overnight, like a great fighter who has been fighting for years and still seems to be a great fighter until some
night he gets in there with a strong young fellow who belts him out in a couple of rounds."
Gehrig did have a "rally" in the 1939 pre-season. He hit two singles and two homeruns in one game in Norfolk, VA. On paper
it looked good, but manager Joe McCarthy settled the flames. He told reporters, "The singles were all right. The homeruns
were fly balls over a short right-field fence."
The 1939 season proved to be the worst statistically in Gehrig's career: 8 games, 34 plate appearances, 4 hits, 1 RBI,
2 runs, 0 homeruns, 0 doubles/triples, .143 batting average, .143 slugging percentage, and oddly only 1 strikeout. His fielding
remained above par, however, with a mere 2 errors compared to 64 putouts, and a .971 fielding percentage.
The most heartbreaking stat was his GDP, grounded by double play. A downplayed-Cobb base runner, Gehrig had never, in 16
years, been caught in a double play. In 1939 he was caught 2 times, only because he had lost so much control over his muscles
that he could not run straight-backed.
Meanwhile, the "guessing game" continued; many insisted that the strain of playing such a long string of games was too
much and his body was retaliating. But those who had been watching him closely knew it had to be more than strain, more than
a slump. James Kahn, a reporter who often wrote on Gehrig, pointed out in one article:
"I think there's something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don't know what it is. But I am satisfied that it
goes far beyond his ball-playing. I have seen ballplayers 'go' overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done. But they were simply
washed up as ballplayers. It's something deeper than that in this case, though.
"I have watched him very closely and this is what I have seen: I have seen him time a ball perfectly, swing on it as hard
as he can, meet it squarely - and drive a soft, looping fly over the infield. In other words, for some reason that I do not
know, his old power isn't there.... He is meeting the ball, time after time, and it isn't going anywhere."
Bill Dickey was Gehrig's teammate, best friend, and roommate on many Yankee trips. He knew before most people, including
Kahn, that Gehrig was suffering from some type of physical ailment. One day Gehrig could not get the cap off of a ketchup
bottle; a man who could bench press like a linebacker could not get a simple cap off of a simple bottle. Dickey had to intervene
and win the battle for him. Another day Dickey was reading a newspaper in their room and heard Gehrig stumble. Dickey put
down the paper to see what Gehrig had tripped on, but there was nothing there except flat floor; Gehrig had a bewildered look
on his face.
The "guessing game" quickly turned into the dreaded conversation between Gehrig and Eleanor. "The time has come," they
decided. On May 2, 1939, Gehrig sat out for the first time since June 1, 1925 - 2,130 consecutive games.
Gehrig had been convinced that he needed a rest. The only thing left to convince him of was that his ailment had nothing
to do with his gallbladder. Eleanor got him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, in June 1939. The rest is unfortunate history.