Gehrig's teammates had noticed something wrong with their 35-year-old leader early in the 1938 season when the ball no longer jumped off his bat. He had rallied to finish with only slightly sub-par numbers: a .295 batting average, 114 RBI, and 29 homers.
Ted Williams was elected
into Baseball’s Hall of
Fame in 1966.
Steadily deteriorating from the start of spring training in 1939 through eight games into the regular season, the "Iron Horse" finally called it quits, ending baseball's longest consecutive-game streak at 2,130. Shortly afterward, he was diagnosed with the disease that carries his name.
On July 4, Lou Gehrig was given the day at Yankee Stadium at which he delivered his famous line: "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," He was dead by 1941. Gehrig retired with a .340 lifetime batting average, 1,990 RBI, 493 homers -- a record 23 of them grandslams -- and a slugging average of .632, third on the all-time list behind Babe Ruth and Williams.
A very deep Yankees team replaced Gehrig with Babe Dahlgren and returned to the business of baseball. They were in a close pennant race with Boston, which stayed within striking distance of the lead until the All-Star break. In late July, however, New York kicked into high gear and left the Red Sox in the dust, finally winning its fourth consecutive pennant by 17 games.
The New York attack was led by MVP Joe DiMaggio (who won the batting title at .381 and drove in 126 runs, second-best in the American League), Red Rolfe (who scored 139 runs and hit 46 doubles, both league-leading figures), and 22-year-old outfielder Charlie Keller (who was fifth in hitting at .334).
As usual, New York pitchers allowed the fewest runs in the American League, behind 21-7 Red Ruffing and 12-6 Bump Hadley (who were fourth and fifth in ERA at 2.94 and 2.98) and Atley Donald and Lefty Gomez (who went a combined 25-11). Even Johnny Murphy had a great showing, redeeming his performance with a record 19 saves in late-inning relief duty.
The Red Sox relied on Lefty Grove, who won a record ninth ERA title, slugger Jimmie Foxx, and Williams. Foxx led the American League with 35 homers while the rookie Williams batted .327 and spearheaded the league in RBI with 145 (he also scored 131 runs and knocked 44 doubles and 31 homers).
Cincinnati celebrated the 70th anniversary of the champion 1869 Reds, baseball's first openly professional team, and the 20th anniversary of their 1919 World Championship by winning the 1939 National League pennant.
Only two years removed from the cellar, the Reds were led by MVP pitcher Bucky Walters, who went 27-11 with a league-low 2.29 ERA. Teammate Paul Derringer won 25, second-best in the league, and recorded the fourth-best ERA at 2.93.
The Reds pitched their way to the National League flag by 4-1/2 games over a hard-hitting St. Louis team that featured Johnny Mize, the batting champ at .349 and home run leader at 28. Ducky Medwick batted .332 and had 48 doubles (second only to teammate Enos Slaughter's 52 doubles) and 117 RBI.
Cincinnati became the fourth National League champion in four years to run into the New York Yankees' World Series buzz saw, falling in four games by a combined score of 20-8. After losing 2-1 in a game one pitchers' duel between Derringer and Ruffing, the Reds lost by scores of 4-0, 7-3, and 7-4. The Yankees outhomered their opponents 7-0.Baseball's Hall of Fame was dedicated in Cooperstown, New York, to celebrate the game's mythical centennial in 1939. Twenty-six players were inducted into the Hall; the first five to be voted in (in 1936) were Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson.
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1939 Baseball Season Headlines
Hall of Fame Dedication
Ford Frick, president of the National League, dedicated the Hall of Fame in 1939. In attendance were Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball; Will Harridge, the president of the American League; and William Bramham, the president of the National Association, which embraces the minor leagues.
Hall of Fame Inducts Its First 17 Players
Ten of the original 17 men inducted into the Hall of Fame include: Eddie Collins, Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Pete Alexander, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, George Sisler, and Walter Johnson.
Joe DiMaggio Takes Over the 1939 New York Yankees
"He never offered the appearance of either gaiety, or anger, or tremendous self-effort. His smile was self-conscious, his manner withdrawn to the point of a chill." So said Robert Smith of Joe DiMaggio, who with the departure of Lou Gehrig in 1939, became the consummate Yankee (he hit .381 that year).
Ted Williams Becomes Star of the Show
Overshadowed by his dazzling slugging stats (131 runs scored, 31 home runs, 145 RBI) was the fact that Ted Williams collected 107 walks in 1939, a 20th-century rookie record. The following year, he dipped to 96 free passes. After that he averaged well over 100 walks per season. Largely because Williams walked so often, he never had a campaign in which he made 200 hits.
Johnny Mize Tops National League in Home Runs
In 1939 with St. Louis, Johnny Mize led the National League in home runs with 28. As was the case with virtually every Cardinals star in the 1930s, Mize was traded when he approached age 30. But in this instance, Branch Rickey miscalculated. Mize still had several gigantic seasons left in him, whereas the three players the Cards got in return from the Giants did little in St. Louis.
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More 1939 Baseball Season Headlines
Following are more headlines from the 1939 baseball season, including some famous moments from the 1939 World Series.
Paul Derringer Back on Track
Paul Derringer, the last pitcher to lose 25 or more games in a season, had a 7-25 record for Cincinnati after coming to the Reds from the Cardinals early in the 1932 season. With the pennant-winning Reds in 1939, Derringer was 25-7, the exact reverse of his 1932 figures. Despite his outstanding record, Derringer yielded 321 hits in 301 innings.
Jimmie Foxx Tops American League in Home Runs
During his career, Jimmie Foxx played every position except second base. Not only did Foxx lead the American League in homers in 1939 (35), he also made his first mound appearance. His perfect relief inning remained his only hurling experience until 1945, when he toed the rubber nine times for the last-place Phillies and registered a 1.59 ERA in 222/3 innings, yielding just 13 hits.
Joe DiMaggio's Hit Triggers Bizarre Play
Some of the most famous moments in World Series history include: When Yankees rookie star Charlie Keller sprinted plateward in the tenth inning of game four of the 1939 World Series as Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi awaited the throw. Frank Crosetti had already scored on Joe Dimaggio's single. The umpire was former major league third baseman Babe Pinelli.
Charlie Keller Crosses the Plate
Charlie Keller scored after he slammed into Lombardi and jarred the ball loose. The impact left the 230-pound Lombardi so stunned that he nearly lost consciousness. Keller weighed only 185 pounds but was so strong that his nickname was "King Kong."
Ernie Lombardi Languishes in Dust
In the 1939 World Series, as Lombardi was sprawled beside the plate, DiMaggio slid across it. One cannot resist wondering where the other Reds players were while DiMaggio circled the bases. In any event, his tally enabled the Yankees to take a 7-4 lead in the contest. The Reds committed three errors in the fateful tenth inning.
1939 New York Yankees Walk Away Winning
During the 1939 World Series, third baseman Billy Werber and Frank Crosetti came to the assistance of the stricken Lombardi. Meanwhile, DiMaggio walked away and Bill Dickey, the on deck hitter, exhorting on the amazing occurrences he had just witnessed. New York shut down the Reds in the bottom of the inning to win its fourth consecutive World Series Championship.
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1939 Baseball Season Highlights
The 1939 baseball season includes some of the most famous moments in World Series history, including the Hall of Fame dedication and some impressive baseball stats. The highlights below represent some of the most memorable moments during the 1939 baseball season.
- The New York Yankees win the American League flag by 17 games for an American League record fourth straight pennant.
- The Cincinnati Reds win in the National League two years after finishing in cellar.
- The New York Yankees sweep the 1939 World Series and have now won 28 of their last 31 World Series games.
- Rookie Charlie Keller becomes the 1939 World Series hero, hitting .438 with six RBI.
- Four different Yankees pitchers win a World Series game, the first time this has happened.
- Cincinnati Reds manager Bill McKechnie has now won flags for three different teams.
- Joe DiMaggio is American League MVP.
- Cincinnati Reds Bucky Walters is National League MVP.
- Walters leads majors with 27 wins; teammate Paul Derringer wins 25.
- DiMaggio leads majors with .381 BA.
- Lou Gehrig's string of 2,130 straight games played ends on May 2.
- Gehrig gives his famous farewell address at Yankee Stadium after he learns he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
- On August 26, the first major league game is televised -- the Boston Reds vs. Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
- The Hall of Fame is officially dedicated and opens on June 12.
- Gehrig is voted into the Hall of Fame in 1939 by special ballot.
- On May 16, the first American League night game is played -- Cleveland Indians vs. Oakland A's at Shibe Park.
- Lefty Grove wins the last of his major league record nine ERA crowns.
- Boston rookie Ted Williams leads majors in RBI with 145 -- the most ever by a major league rookie.
- DiMaggio becomes the last righty hitter to top .380 in a season.
- Detroit Tigers swaps six players to Browns for Bobo Newsom and three other players.
- The use of netting in gloves is outlawed -- only leather webbing is allowed.
- Radio income now represents 7.3 percent of the average club's revenue.
- The 25-player limit, reduced to 23 during the Depression, is restored.
- Gehrig is the first player to have his uniform number retired.
- The American League wins the All-Star Game 3-1 at Yankee Stadium.
- On August 4, White Sox Mike Kreevich grounds into four DPs.
- Red Rolfe scores at least one run in a record 18 consecutive games.
- Red Sox Jim Tabor hits a record two grandslams in a game on July 4.
- Eighteen years after his major league debut, Atlanta Brave Johnny Cooney hits his first major league homer on Sept. 24; he hits another the next day.
- Jimmie Foxx leads American League in homers (35), SA (.694), and OBP (.464).
- Rolfe tops American League in runs (139), hits (213), and doubles (46).
Check out the next section for more highlights from the 1939 baseball season.
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More 1939 Baseball Season Highlights
Following are more highlights from the 1939 baseball season, including stats from the Browns' disappointing season.
- Pittsburgh Pirate Lee Handley and Chicago Cub Stan Hack tie for the National League theft lead with just 17.
- Johnny Mize leads National League in homers (28), BA (.349), SA (.626), and total bases (353).
- Ted Williams tops the majors in runs produced with 245.
- Bob Feller leads the American League in wins (24), innings (297), and Ks (246), and ties in CGs (24).
Billy Herman made his
debut in the major leagues
in 1931 with the
- Bucky Walters tops the major leagues in innings (319), CGs (31), and ERA (2.29).
- Red Frank McCormick again leads the National League in hits (209), and also leads in
RBI (128) and runs produced (209).
- Brooklyn Dodger's Cookie Lavagetto goes 6-for-6 on
- The Browns finish at 43-111, an American League record 641/2 games out of first.
- The average player's salary in 1939 is about $7,300.
- George Sisler, Eddie Collins, Willie Keeler, Cap Anson, Charles Comiskey, Candy Cummings, Buck Ewing, Hoss Radbourn, and Al Spalding enter the Hall of Fame.
- Williams sets the American League rookie records for SA (.609) and walks (107).
- Earl Whitehill retires with a 4.36 career ERA, highest in major league history by a 200-game winner.
- Bob Schmidt of Duluth in the Northern League hits an OB record .441.
- The New York Yankees go 54-20 on the road to set an American League record.
- The Browns go 18-59 at home to set the American League record for worst home performance in a season.
- Washington Senator's Buddy Lewis is the American League triples leader with 16.
- Washington Senator's George Case wins his first American League steals crown with 51.
- Johnny Murphy of the New York Yankees leads the majors with 19 saves.
- The St. Louis Cardinals' Curt Davis wins 22 games and bats .381.
- Billy Werber tops the National League in runs (115).
- St. Louis Cardinal Enos Slaughter leads the National League in doubles with 52.
- Billy Herman of the Chicago Cubs leads the majors with 18 triples.
- Mel Ott tops the National League in OBP (.449).
- Dutch Leonard wins 20 games for sixth-place Washington Senators.
- The New York Yankees have a record eight pitchers who work 116 or more innings and a ninth, Murphy, who appears in 38 games.
- For a second year in a row, the Red Sox have no pitchers who work 200 innings.
- The St. Louis Cardinals lead the majors with a .294 batting average.
To learn more about baseball, see:
- 1938 Baseball Season
- 1940 Baseball Season
- Baseball History
- How Baseball Works
- How the Baseball Hall of Fame Works
- How Minor League Baseball Teams Work
- Babe Ruth