The Yankees have had some special seasons during the past one hundred years. In 1923 the franchise won its first World Series. In 1941 Joe DiMaggio became an American icon when he recorded a base hit in 56 consecutive games. Twenty years later, Roger Maris went on a historic run of his own, beating the Babe and hitting 61 homers in ’61. The 1996 season will always be remembered as the dawn of a new Yankees dynasty, and 1998 will never be forgotten because the Bombers won an incredible 114 games.
Few people know why the 1938 season was just as special as the seasons listed above. On the surface, ’38 doesn’t seem particularly interesting. The Yankees cruised to the World Series after winning the AL pennant by a comfortable 9.5 games. They went on to club the Cubs in the Fall Classic, outscoring Chicago 22 to 9 in a four game sweep. The ’38 title was the team’s third straight in a run of four consecutive championships that ran from 1936 to 1939. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.
For one man the 1938 season was anything but easy. For one man 1938 was the challenge of a lifetime, and victory was anything but certain. That man was Lou Gehrig. While the Yankees rolled through the regular season, their captain fought against the accumulating effects of ALS, a disease that would eventually claim both his career and his life. In his excellent new book, Last Ride of the Iron Horse, Dan Joseph tells the inspiring story of how Gehrig’s grit and determination helped power the Yankees to their seventh championship.
Lou in the Limelight
In an early chapter of his book, Joseph notes that Gehrig was often overshadowed by flashier teammates. Lou was a tremendous player, but he never garnered the media attention of Ruth and DiMaggio. Thankfully, Last Ride of the Iron Horse shines a spotlight on Gehrig and allows readers to see Lou through new eyes. Joseph dedicates the perfect amount of time to Lou’s backstory. He tells us about Lou’s upbringing, his charming relationship with his mother, and his decision to pursue a career in baseball.
This portion of the book also includes a look at Lou’s happy marriage to Eleanor. Eleanor is proof that behind every great man there is a strong woman. Joseph credits Mrs. Gehrig with broadening her husband’s horizons. She taught him to appreciate the finer things in life. She also pushed him to realize his potential, to stake his claim as one of the greatest baseball players in the world. By giving Gehrig’s personal history the attention it deserves, Joseph makes the rest of the book more meaningful for the reader.
After teaching us about the man, Joseph teaches us about the ballplayer. He expertly weaves together the story of Lou’s ’38 season beginning in spring training, when Lou’s power seemed to go missing. Last Ride of the Iron Horse then looks at Lou’s steady decline during the first half of the 1938 campaign. Joseph records the frustration of the fans and of Gehrig himself as the perennial all-star sees his numbers drop well below his career averages. The power of the book is that it makes the reader feel just as disappointed with Lou’s performance as the fans were.
There are highs, though, as well as lows. After taking an in-depth look at Lou’s early struggles, Joseph narrates Gehrig’s revival during the second half of the ’38 season. Joseph keeps us on the edge of our seats as he recalls Lou’s biggest at bats and most exciting plays. He also discusses the possible explanations for Gehrig’s sudden return to form. One of the most interesting theories involves a temporary reversal in his ALS symptoms. Is it possible that the Iron Horse experienced a sudden surge in strength during his blistering August? Joseph looks at the testimony of leading ALS doctors as he skillfully weighs the evidence.
The 1938 World Series is given excellent treatment in the book’s ninth chapter. Joseph goes through the series game by game, providing important details about Lou’s performance and the Yankees’ victories. Thanks to Last Ride of the Iron Horse, I’m now more familiar with the ’38 World Series than I am with any other Fall Classic predating the Torre dynasty.
After concluding his coverage of Gehrig’s 1938 season, Joseph dedicates the final two chapters of the book to Lou’s last months. Last Ride of the Iron Horse documents Lou’s willingness to take on a more public role regarding world affairs. The book also provides touching details that pertain to Lou’s work as a civil servant after the end of his baseball career in 1939. And what book on Gehrig would be complete without a discussion of Lou’s Luckiest Man speech? Joseph handles what might be Gehrig’s greatest moment with sensitivity and class.
Last Ride of the Iron Horse also contains some very valuable information on ALS. The nature of the disease is explained clearly, and Joseph even finds time to discuss the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years back. Besides being a great baseball book, Last Ride of the Iron Horse is valuable as a source for learning a bit more about a deadly disease.
I can gladly recommend Last Ride of the Iron Horse to any Yankee fan or general baseball fan. Lou Gehrig might be the most under-appreciated Yankee legend, and his battle through the 1938 season is undoubtedly his most under-appreciated achievement. Gehrig embodies so much of what is great, not only about baseball, but about the human spirit. If you’re looking for a great book on Lou, look no further.
Last Ride of the Iron Horse is available in print and Kindle formats from Amazon. It can also be purchased on the Sunbury Press website.
The book review series resumes in two weeks with a detailed look at Bryan Hoch’s 2018 book, The Baby Bombers: The Inside Story of the Next Yankees Dynasty.