Hall of Fame opened the day of Lou Gehrig’s final game
That same day, a thousand miles away, a future Hall of Famer would play in his final game.
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During his three innings of action, Gehrig cleanly fielded all four chances. In his only at bat, he hit the first ball pitched to him in the third inning and smacked a weak groundout to second baseman Gerald Priddy. Babe Dahlgren, who had replaced Gehrig as the first baseman the previous month when the consecutive game streak came to an end, got three hits after taking over for Gehrig against Kansas City.
While the rest of the Yankees left on a train for New York after the game, spending two nights aboard the Pullman before opening a home stand against the Indians, Gehrig was headed for the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a complete physical examination.
Gehrig attempted to travel incognito from Kansas City to Rochester, Minn. – flying under the name of “Lorenz” – but was recognized during a stopover at the Minneapolis airport, including by a small group of camera-toting youngsters whom he later bought a round of hot dogs for.
During the two-hour layover in Minneapolis, Gehrig told reporters he felt all right, expected to return to the Yankees lineup and had been assured if there’s anything wrong “they will find out at Rochester. I need that old speed back and that’s why I’m going to have a checkup.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get back in the harness or not. It all depends on what they find down there. I can only hope.”
After being examined by Mayo Clinic physicians from June 13-19, 1939, Gehrig returned to New York, where he presented the medical institution’s report to McCarthy and Yankees President Ed Barrow at Yankee Stadium on June 21. After a conference in McCarthy’s office, Barrow read the report from Dr. Harold Hobein to an anxious media throng.
“After a careful and complete examination it was found that he is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” the statement read in part. “This type of illness involves the motor pathways and cells of the central nervous system and in lay terms is known as a form of chronic poliomyelitis – infantile paralysis.
“The nature of this trouble makes it such that Mr. Gehrig will be unable to continue his active participation as a baseball player inasmuch as it is advisable that he conserve his muscular energy. He could, however, continue in some executive activity.”
For the once strapping physical specimen, the broken bones, concussions, lumbago, bumps and bruises he had to endure to continue his remarkable streak were minor inconveniences compared to the effects of ALS.
“What my physical examination revealed came as a distinct shock to Mrs. Gehrig and myself,” Gehrig said. “Before I went to the clinic I made a thousand guesses as to what might be the matter with me. What the tests showed was the one thing I never suspected. Mrs. Gehrig and I are fully resolved to face the situation calmly.
“It’s something to know what was wrong with me. I was sure that there must be some unrevealed reason why a man in such good general health as I enjoy should suddenly lose the coordination needed for playing baseball. Going to the Mayo Clinic was the best move I ever made.”
Gehrig even joked about the many physical examinations he underwent at the Mayo Clinic. “They even made an x-ray picture of my head,” he said, before adding with a grin, “but they didn’t find anything there.”
Despite his brave public face, Gehrig was also realistic about his future.
“My friends tell me not to worry,” he said. “They slap me on the back and say, ‘Don’t worry, Lou. Everything is going to be all right.’ But how can I help worrying?”
Later that summer, on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day was held at Yankee Stadium, where Gehrig uttered the now famous and poignant words at a home plate ceremony: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
On Dec. 7, 1939, the BBWAA voted unanimously to suspend the waiting period and placed Gehrig in the Baseball Hall of Fame immediately “to commemorate the year in which he achieved his record.”
Less than two years later, Gehrig died at the age of 37 on June 2, 1941.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum