Coming off the least productive season of his career, Gehrig hardly seemed to be himself throughout spring training prior to the start of the 1939 campaign. The ball no longer jumped off his bat, and he appeared sluggish both at the plate and in the field. Gehrig’s performance failed to improve once the regular season got underway. After batting just .143 and driving in only one run in the season’s first eight contests, the Iron Horse failed to take the field for the first time in 2,130 games on May 2, informing Yankee manager Joe McCarthy he didn’t wish to hurt the team’s chances of winning. Gehrig subsequently underwent a series of tests that revealed he suffered from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a rare and incurable neurological disorder that eventually came to bear his name. As word spread throughout the baseball world of Gehrig’s dire situation, the Yankees elected to honor their captain with a special day at Yankee Stadium on July 4th, in which his teammates, past and present, paid tribute to him. During the emotion-filled ceremonies, the Yankees retired Gehrig’s number 4, after which he made perhaps the most memorable speech in sports history, telling a teary-eyed, standing-room-only crowd that he considered himself to be “…the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Lou Gehrig died less than two years later, two weeks shy of his 38th birthday.
Ordinarily, such a devastating loss would have ruined the Yankees’ chances of becoming the first team to capture four straight American League pennants. However, the Yankees were no ordinary ball club. Considered by many baseball historians to be the greatest team ever assembled, the 1939 New York Yankees ended up compiling a regular-season record of 106-45, en route to finishing first in the junior circuit, 17 full games ahead of the second-place Boston Red Sox. New York scored a league-leading 967 runs and allowed the opposition to cross the plate a total of only 556 times, en route to posting an all-time best run-differential of 411. The Yankees led all of baseball with 166 home runs, a .374 on-base percentage, and a .451 slugging percentage, while also topping all American League clubs with a team ERA of 3.31. Four Yankee players finished in the top ten in the A.L. MVP voting, with Joe DiMaggio winning the award for the first of three times.
Red Ruffing served as the ace of New York’s deep pitching staff, finishing the year with a record of 21-7, a 2.93 ERA, 22 complete games, and a league-leading five shutouts. Although no other Yankee pitcher won more than 13 games, six other members of the staff posted double-digit win totals.
Meanwhile, despite losing Gehrig, the Yankees fielded an exceptional everyday lineup. Leadoff hitter Red Rolfe batted .329, knocked in 80 runs, and led the league with 139 runs scored, 213 hits, and 46 doubles. George Selkirk batted .306, hit 21 homers, knocked in 101 runs, and scored 103 others. Rookie outfielder Charlie Keller drove in 83 runs and batted .334. Frank Crosetti scored 109 runs, while his double play partner Joe Gordon hit 28 homers and knocked in 111 runs. Bill Dickey hit 24 home runs, drove in 105 runs, scored 98 others, and batted .302. In Gehrig’s absence, Joe DiMaggio established himself as the team’s best player, as well as its on-field leader. Despite missing 35 games during the early stages of the season, DiMaggio led the league with a .381 batting average and finished among the leaders with 30 home runs, 126 runs batted in, 108 runs scored, a .448 on-base percentage, and a .671 slugging percentage.
The Cincinnati Reds subsequently became the fourth straight National League champion to fall victim to the Yankees in the World Series. The Yankees swept the Reds in four straight games, outscoring them by a combined margin of 20-8, and out-homering them 7-0. Charlie Keller starred for New York, batting .438, hitting three home runs, knocking in six runs, and scoring eight others. The Series victory enabled the Yankees to extend their then major-league record three consecutive world championships to four.
Other notable events from around the league and players who distinguished themselves over the course of the season included:
• January 13 – Yankee owner and President Jacob Ruppert died. Ruppert, who first purchased the team in 1915, helped build the Yankee dynasty, making the first of several wise moves by purchasing Babe Ruth from Boston in 1919.
• January 24 – George Sisler, Eddie Collins and Willie Keeler were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
• April 20 – The Boston Red Sox unveiled their prize rookie Ted Williams before 30,278 fans in Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. After striking out twice, Williams doubled off Yankee starter Red Ruffing, who earned a 2–0 victory. New York first baseman Lou Gehrig committed an error, went hitless, and lined into two double plays in the only game that featured the two legendary sluggers. Other notables in what later became a historic box score included Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Jimmie Foxx, Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr, Red Rolfe, and losing pitcher Lefty Grove.
• April 21 – Ted Williams played his first game at Fenway Park, scoring the first run for the Boston Red Sox in a 9-2 Boston victory over the Philadelphia Athletics.
• April 23 - Ted Williams went 4-for-5, including his first major-league home run, a three-run blast in the first inning off Bud Thomas. However, the Philadelphia Athletics defeated the Boston Red Sox 12-8 at Fenway Park.
• May 2 – New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig voluntarily benched himself "for the good of the team," ending his consecutive-games played streak at 2,130. Babe Dahlgren replaced him in the lineup, going two-for-five with a home run during New York’s 22-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers.
• June 5 – Detroit Tigers pitcher Tommy Bridges held New York to just four hits, as the Yankees suffered their only shutout of the year.
• June 12 – In Cooperstown, New York, the official dedication of the National Baseball Hall of Fame took place. Grover Cleveland Alexander, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Walter Johnson, Nap Lajoie, Babe Ruth, George Sisler, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Cy Young and Connie Mack were all in attendance to accept their plaques. Willie Keeler, Cap Anson, Charles Comiskey, Candy Cummings, Buck Ewing, Hoss Radbourn, and Al Spalding entered Cooperstown posthumously.
• July 25 – Yankees pitcher Atley Donald set a league record for consecutive wins by a rookie, bringing his record to 12–0 with a 5–1 victory over the St. Louis Browns.
• July 26 – The New York Yankees tied a major league record by scoring in every inning against the St. Louis Browns. Bill Dickey hit three home runs in the 14–1 win.
• By sweeping the 1939 World Series from the Cincinnati Reds, the New York Yankees improved their record to 28-3 over their past seven appearances in the Fall Classic.
• A special ballot elected Lou Gehrig into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
• On May 16, the first American League night game was played in Philadelphia between the Athletics and the Cleveland Indians.
• Lefty Grove won the last of his major league record nine ERA titles.
- 1939 Hall of Fame, 1939 World Series, American League, Atley Donald, Bill Dickey, Bob Feller, Bobby Doerr, Charlie Keller, Cincinnati Reds, Frankie Crosetti, George Selkirk, Hank Greenberg, Jacob Ruppert, Jimmie Foxx, Joe Cronin, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, Joe McCarthy, Lefty Grove, Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees, Red Rolfe, Red Ruffing, Ted Williams, Tommy Bridges