April 25, 1939: Lou Gehrig shows final flash of brilliance with two-hit game for Yankees

This article was written by Chuck Hildebrandt

Lou Gehrig (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)The warning signs about Lou Gehrig had been accumulating all spring of 1939: The New York Yankees’ venerable iron man suddenly wasn’t what he used to be.

Gehrig wasn’t necessarily ancient. He was still just 35 years old — past retirement age for ordinary ballplayers, but still comfortably within career range for all-time greats, and Gehrig was an inner-circle all-time great. Lou was a two-time MVP and had played in all six All-Star Games to date; while 1938 was his worst season in 13 years, he still batted .295 with 29 home runs and 114 RBIs.1 That was still good enough to garner a few MVP votes, as well as a reasonable expectation that he would return closer to form in 1939.

But the warning signs mounted as spring proceeded. Camp critics said Lou had “lost his step” and would “never be the same again.”2 In one spring game, he could not hit the ball out of the infield in five tries.3 He ended up batting under .150 that spring, after which it was written, “They used to say Gehrig carried the Yanks but now they are saying the Yanks are carrying Gehrig.”4 Concerns continued to mount as the season began, with one article stating flatly, “He [looks] feeble afield and at bat. … Gehrig’s number is definitely up.”5

As for his Yankees, they were the three-time defending World Series champions, off to a strong start, and were considered the favorites for the 1939 pennant. They came into the game at Yankee Stadium alone in first place at 4-1, while their opponent, the Philadelphia Athletics, was splitting fourth place with three other teams at 2-3.6

Gehrig started at first base, of course, and batted fifth, a slot historically alien to him but which he had settled into during the 1938 season.7 The drop from third in the order seemed to agree with Lou: After batting just .267 through June 22, he went 3-for-5 with a homer the following day, then hit .310 the rest of the season. So, despite the warning signs about his decline, he had the five-hole locked down for as long as he could keep it.

Future Hall of Famer Red Ruffing started for the Bronx Bombers that day, pitted against the very average Luther “Bud” Thomas representing the Mackmen. Ruffing was already 1-0, having shut out the Boston Red Sox in the season lidlifter on April 20.8 Thomas had started two days before and was run off the mound after surrendering four runs on three hits and a walk in two-thirds of an inning,9 so he was deemed fresh enough two days later to have another go at the slab.

The A’s put two men on with one out in the first inning before a fly out and a groundout retired them, while the Yankees went down one-two-three in their half of the first. Ruffing plunked Dario Lodigiani to open the A’s second, but Nick Etten and Skeeter Newsome flied out, and Thomas popped to the catcher to strand the still-smarting leadoff man.

Young hitting sensation Joe DiMaggio doubled to lead off the Yankees second, bringing up Gehrig for his first at-bat. He grounded back to Thomas, weakly enough to allow DiMaggio to take third base while Thomas retired Lou at first for the first out. Plating DiMaggio with a fly out to left field, Bill Dickey became the first Yankee of the season to benefit from the new sacrifice-fly rule no longer charging an at-bat. The rule would be rescinded the following season but reimplemented for good in 1954.10

After both teams went quietly in the third inning, the A’s scored twice in the fourth. Bob Johnson led off with a single and took third on Frankie Hayes’s single. After Lodigiani popped up for the first out, Etten hit a sharp grounder to Gehrig for a potential inning-ending double play. The ball skipped off the glove on Gehrig’s right hand and deflected to second baseman Bill Knickerbocker, playing in place of the injured Joe Gordon.11 Knickerbocker scooped up the ball and threw it back to Gehrig for the second out, although that allowed Johnson to score from third and sent Hayes to second.

Newsome followed with a single that scored Hayes. Thomas grounded to third baseman Red Rolfe, who forced Newsome at second for the third out, but the A’s had taken a 2-1 lead courtesy of the Iron Horse’s iron glove.

The Yankees helped bail out their captain with four runs in their half of the frame. After Tommy Henrich popped to short to lead off, DiMaggio reached on an error by third baseman Lodigiani. Gehrig, up for the second time, laced a single to right, sending Joltin’ Joe to third. Dickey followed with a single to score the first run and send Gehrig to second, chasing Thomas from the game.

The runners trotted home as George Selkirk greeted reliever Eddie Smith with a “cannonball shot to into the upper right field stands,” staking Ruffing to a 5-2 lead after four innings.12

The A’s went one-two-three in the fifth, but Ruffing tweaked his arm and was removed from the game, replaced by Bump Hadley. The New York Daily News game account hyperbolically referred to the injury as a “torn muscle in [Ruffing’s] $20,000 throwing arm” and predicted that he would “miss a turn or two” as a result.13 Instead, Ruffing returned just six days later to pitch the first of five consecutive complete-game victories.14

After Henrich obtained a free pass from new A’s pitcher Lynn Nelson to start the Yanks’ fifth, DiMaggio singled him to third base. Gehrig, in his third at-bat, earned an RBI with his groundout to the first baseman that scored Henrich and somehow sent the Yankee Clipper all the way to third. While Dickey was at bat, DiMaggio thought a pitch had gotten past the catcher Hayes; it hadn’t, and he was an easy out. Dickey then ended the inning by grounding out to second.

The A’s scored two runs in the sixth as Johnson led off with a walk. After Hayes and Lodigiani each flied out to right, Etten crushed a monster clout “to the concrete concourse in right where the A’s have their bullpen” to close the gap to 6-4.15

Each team went quietly in the seventh. The A’s threatened in the eighth with a Johnson leadoff walk and an Etten single but could not score.

Gehrig led off the New York eighth for his fourth and final plate trip with a single to left, but he was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double. Dickey followed with a single to right and took second on an error by right fielder Wally Moses. Selkirk followed with his own single to right that not only scored Dickey, but allowed him to also advance to second on yet another muff by Moses. Knickerbocker knocked in Dickey with another single. Hadley ended the inning by grounding into a 4-6-3 double play.

Hadley finished off the A’s in the ninth inning by inducing a fly out by pinch-hitter Lou Finney and, after walking Moses, striking out Joe Gantenbein and Sam Chapman to secure Ruffing’s second win, as well as the Yankees’ fifth victory of the season. Had Jerome Holtzman been born 30 years earlier, Hadley would have been credited in the moment with his first save of the season. For his part, Thomas was debited with his first and only defeat of the season. He was traded on May 1 to the Washington Senators, who turned around and flipped him to the Detroit Tigers just 18 days later, where he fashioned a sparkling 7-0 record in 27 relief appearances.16

For his part, Lou Gehrig finished the game with two singles in four at-bats, scoring one run and driving in another.

Five days later, on April 30, Gehrig played the final game of his career.







1 Lou Gehrig Overview, accessed January 5, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gehrilo01.shtml.

2 “Lou Gehrig Denies He’s on Long Trek Downward,” Alton (Illinois) Evening Telegraph, March 14, 1939: 10.

3 Martin J. Haley, “Yanks Slug Cards Into 12-7 Defeat,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 20, 1939: 14.

4 George Kirksey, “Henrich Set to Replace Lou Gehrig,” Wisconsin State Journal (Madison), April 7, 1939: 22.

5 “Lou Gehrig’s First Showing Reveals Truth of Spring Tales of Creaky Legs, Poor Eyes,” Orlando (Florida) Reporter-Star, April 21 1939: 9.

6 MLB Scores and Standings Monday, April 24, 1939, accessed January 5, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/?year=1939&month=04&day=24.

7 Lou Gehrig 1938 Batting Game Log, accessed January 5, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.fcgi?id=gehrilo01&t=b&year=1938.

8 Red Ruffing 1939 Pitching Game Log, accessed January 5, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.fcgi?id=ruffire01&t=p&year=1939.

9 Bud Thomas 1939 Pitching Game Log, accessed January 5, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.fcgi?id=thomabu01&t=p&year=1939.

10 “Diamond Dust,” New York Daily News, April 26, 1939: 56.

11 Bill McCullough, “Knickerbocker’s Fill-In Job Stresses Yank Reserve Power,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 26, 1939: 16.

12 Jack Smith, “Yankees Whip A’s, 8-4, Lose Ruffing,” New York Daily News, April 26, 1939: 54.

13 “Yankees Whip A’s, 8-4, Lose Ruffing.”

14 Red Ruffing 1939 Pitching Game Log.

15 James C. Isaminger, “Yankees Wallop 2 Mack Hurlers,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 26, 1939: 23.

16 Bud Thomas Overview, accessed January 5, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/thomabu01.shtml.

Additional Stats

New York Yankees 8
Philadelphia Athletics 4

Yankee Stadium
New York, NY


Box Score + PBP:

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1930s ·