On June 21, 1939, 75 years ago today, the New York Yankees announced the retirement of Lou Gehrig, the greatest first baseman in the history of the game. His retirement marked the end of an era. Gehrig, who had recently been diagnosed with ALS, lived for less than two more years before succumbing to the disease.
As any casual student of history knows, 1939 was a momentous year. A little more than two months after Gehrig's retirement, Germany invaded Poland and World War II was on. Those who are alive today, even those born as I am writing this piece, will likely experience the consequences of that conflict their entire lives. The war and its effects have certainly been a major presence in my life. It is hard to measure the total effects of World War II. The number of people killed in the war is so staggering that no one actually knows what that number is. Hell, I've seen numbers ranging from 20 million to 30 million dead just for the Soviet Union. The pace of technological change, particularly regarding the technology of destruction, was advanced to such a degree by the war and its immediate aftermath that by the mid-1950s man had devised the capability to destroy the entire world many times over. The pace of political change wrought by the war was also staggering. Imperial Europe, finally done in by two World Wars, was largely impotent in the face of national liberation movements in Asia and Africa. China, which had teetered on the brink of chaos for decades, would fall to Communism by 1949. The rise of Pan-Arabism and the creation of the State of Israel, motivated in part by the world's belated reaction to the Holocaust, would result in the Middle East becoming a flashpoint for conflict for decades, possibly for ever.
So what's all of this have to do with Lou Gehrig's retirement? Nothing, causally speaking, of course. But 1939 marks such a bright line between the past and present, between the old and the new, between the almost quaint and the existentially terrifying, that I tend to view important cultural events around that time through the same prism. Gehrig seems to be a particularly fitting symbol for the last days of that pre-World-War-II era. He was by all accounts a gifted, humble man of iron determination, an unassuming man of grace and great personal dignity. I am certain we will never see his like in professional sports again. He was one of a kind. Fans of Stan Musial, and I include myself in that group, might disagree. But Musial's life lasted into the 21st century and, fortunately, we don't associate personal tragedy and wistful thinking with Musial's life or career. The arc of Gehrig's career came to a sudden end in 1939, and the arc of his life followed shortly after. And his life, his career, the man he was will be forever associated with a world that vanished almost as quickly has he did.