The Decline of Lou Gehrig and Rise of Ted Williams: Seven Unforgettable Days In May 1939
By Vincent "Jimmy" Palermo // May 7, 2022
CLUBHOUSE CHRONICLES OF THE GOLDEN ERA
EDITOR’S NOTE: On June 2, 1941, upon their arrival in Detroit, the Yankees learned the sad news that their captain, Lou Gehrig, 17 days before his 38th birthday, had died in his sleep due to ALS in his home. This vivid first-hand account was written by Vincent “Jimmy” Palermo in 2005 and re-published here. Palermo died in December 2010 at age 90 after moving to Brevard County, Florida with his wife Nadine from St. Louis, Missouri in 1986.
THE DECLINE OF GEHRIG AND RISE OF WILLIAMS: Seven Unforgettable Days in May 1939
That historic week saw the beginning of a great career and, sadly, the beginning of the end of another.
“I don’t think he noticed the tears in my eyes as he very slowly walked out of the visitor’s clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park for what would be the last time.” – Vincent “Jimmy” Palermo, May 13, 1939
PART ONE: Ted Williams Hits Town, May 7 – 9, 1939
Reflecting back on my life during those wonderful years in which I was fortunate enough to be involved in the everyday events of Major League baseball in St. Louis and befriend the Browns, Cardinals and many of the ballplayers from the rest of the league, I remember one week in early May of 1939 that stands out as my most memorable, and a harbinger of baseball history.
Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt was slowly bringing America out of the throes of the depression in 1939, the Browns continued to stagger financially, as well as on the field.
A civic-minded group of St. Louis businessmen, led by investment banker Donald L. Barnes, purchased the team in 1937 hoping to put the financially crippled franchise back on its feet and preserve American League baseball in St. Louis.
They invested a considerable sum of money into upgrading the team and developing a better farm system.
However, the Browns continued to languish in the second division and attendance for Brownie games hit rock bottom in 1939. Even with injected capital of $100,000 from Barnes and his other nine directors in May of 1939, the general manager, Bill DeWitt, could barely make payroll.
Operating on a hand-to-mouth basis there was very little in the budget for maintenance of Sportsman’s Park, much fewer player amenities that were enjoyed at other ballparks like Yankee Stadium, Fenway and Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
The visitors’ clubhouse was old, dark, damp and cramped. We kept it spick-and-span clean, but because of limited built-in locker space, any rookie who traveled to St. Louis stood a real good chance of hanging his clothes on a nail.
‘CONGENIAL’ RED SOX HIT TOWN ON THEIR FIRST WESTERN SWING OF THE 1939 SEASON
The Boston Red Sox, one of my favorite teams because of the congeniality and generosity of guys like Joe Cronin, Jimmie Foxx and Bobby Doerr, came into St. Louis in early May on their first western swing of the 1939 season.
The Sox were coming into the May 7 opener with the Browns on a seven-game winning streak and leading the league by one game over the Yankees.
I arrived at the visitor’s clubhouse around 8 a.m. that day and, along with co-workers and good friends, Red Kern and Jim Cavanaugh began to organize the place for the Red Sox’s arrival later that day.
The Boston trunks came in just as we were finishing up, and then the real work began.
We first had to unpack the trunks and then place each player’s equipment and uniforms in their respective lockers.
If there were any wet uniforms they went directly into the big gas dryer and any dirty shoes had to be cleaned and shined by the clubhouse crew. Dirty uniforms, socks and jocks had to be sent to the laundry.
HUNG ON THE WALL
The visiting clubhouse in Sportsman Park in 1939 had 28 lockers to accommodate the manager, two coaches and 25 players.
In the early part of the season, teams were allowed a few rookies, but we didn’t have any locker space for them. To accommodate for the overflow, we designated an area for the rookies to dress in the back of the clubhouse.
Because this area was no more than a few nails in the wall to hang uniforms, and a spot for their trunks, we dubbed this “hung on the wall.”
The Boston trainer arrived at the clubhouse first and unpacked his own trunk in the training room. The training room accommodations and amenities were limited, especially in comparison to today’s standards.
The room had one table for rubdowns, two chairs and a table for medical equipment.
We went about our business of doling out baseballs for batting practice, filling the Cocoa Cola icebox with soda, juices and milk and a long list of other things.
I then hung up the “swindle sheet,” which I had to monitor and balance when the team left town. Red and Jim got all the bats and equipment ready to be taken out to the field as I took all the orders for everything else like food, drinks, messages, etc.
‘WHERE THE HELL IS MY LOCKER!?’
As the players started to come in I was greeted by Jimmie Foxx, Joe Cronin, Doc Cramer, Jim Tabor, Bobby Doerr, Elden Auker and Denny Galehouse.
Accompanying these veterans was a tall, skinny kid, about my age, with a cocky gait. He scanned the clubhouse for a minute and then said in a loud voice, “Where the hell is my locker!?”
I asked him his name and he became even more agitated, but finally said, “Williams.” I yelled back to Jim and asked where he put Williams. Jim, working in the rear of the clubhouse, yelled back, “We’ve got two rookies on the wall – Sayles and Williams.”
Billy Sayles was a right-handed pitcher who would see only minimal action in a four-year Major League career.
Ted, not immediately realizing what being “on the wall” meant, followed me to the back of the clubhouse.
When he saw his uniform hanging on a nail, and his baseball shoes sitting on top of his trunk, his famous temper flared and he impetuously, in no uncertain terms, threatened that I had better have a locker for him the next time the Sox came to town.
Later that day Williams, who was hitting .350 coming into the game, went 1-for-4, driving a Bobo Newsom pitch on a line off of the right center field wall for a two-run double. Ted had the sweetest swing and best eye that I ever saw.
However, the Red Sox streak came to an end, as they could manage only seven hits off of Newsom, and lost 6-3 to the hapless Browns.
The second game of the series was rained out, but in the third game, Boston handed the Browns one of their 111 losses that season, 10-8. Williams contributed to the offensive barrage with a towering three-run homer onto Grand Avenue, and my good friend, Jimmie “Double X” Foxx, lined a two-run circuit clout off of the scoreboard in left.
THE BEGINNING OF A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP
When the Red Sox came back into St. Louis on their second western swing on June 8 they were nipping at the first place Yankees’ heels, and the Browns, under the inept managing of Fred Haney, were mired in the cellar 25 games off the pace.
Ted’s average had dropped to .285, but he was second in the league with 38 RBIs and was the talk of the American League. With “The Kid” hitting fifth behind Bobby Doerr, Doc Cramer, Joe Vosmick and “Double X,” the Sox had one of the most prolific lineups in baseball.
When Ted came into the locker room I personally escorted him to his locker. When he saw that I had put him between Foxx and Lefty Grove, two stars of that era and future Hall of Famers, he had a grin on his kisser that extended from ear to ear. We became good friends thereafter.
Ted went on to have one of the best rookie years in the history of baseball.
He lead the Major Leagues in RBIs with 145, tied for the Major League lead in extra-base hits with 86, lead the American League in total bases with 344, was second in the American League in runs scored with 131, second in walks (Harlan Clift, one of my all-time favorite Brownies, was first) with 107, fourth in slugging percentage at .609 (team-mate Foxx lead with .694), had 185 hits, stroked 31 homers and hit .327.
Williams was a perfectionist, the quintessential student of hitting and drove himself mercilessly to improve.
During the 1939 and 1940 seasons, it was not uncommon for him to ask me to stay around late after a game to throw extra batting practice to him. There was always a nuance of his stride or swing that he thought could be improved.
“The Splendid Splinter” seemed to make it all look so easy, but that classic swing and the havoc he rained on American League pitching those two years, and throughout the rest of his Hall of Fame career, were the result of an almost super-human commitment and work ethic.
ABOVE VIDEO: The Red Sox’s Ted Williams was one of baseball’s greatest hitters. Combining keen vision with quick wrists and a scientific approach to hitting, he set numerous batting records despite missing nearly five full seasons due to military service and two major injuries.
THE DECLINE OF GEHRIG AND RISE OF WILLIAMS: Seven Unforgettable Days in May 1939
‘When “The Iron-Horse” walked into the visitors’ locker room at Sportsman’s Park on May 10th I barely recognized him.’
PART TWO: Lou Gehrig’s Last Visit, May 10 – 13, 1939
That memorable week in May of 1939 saw the beginning of a great career and, sadly, the beginning of the end of another as the mighty New York Yankees arrived in St. Louis on May 10 following the Red Sox series.
I will always remember my dear friend Lou Gehrig as an icon, superstar, gentleman and genuine American hero. In striving to do his best no matter what the circumstances, many people even today, regard Lou as an icon and valuable role model.
Gehrig’s reputation for being one of the strongest and best-conditioned players was surpassed only by his honesty, courage and modesty.
Although the Bronx Bombers finished the 1939 season 17 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox, they were in a virtual dead heat with Boston in May.
Everyone knew that the great Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games had come to an end on the 2nd of May in Detroit when Lou took himself out of the line-up because he thought his puzzling physical weakness was a detriment to the team and he needed time to “get in better shape.”
He had only four hits and one RBI in the first eight games of the season and was admittedly very fatigued after every game. During my time with the Browns starting in 1926, and through Lou’s last full season in 1938, I had never seen anyone else play first base for the Yankees.
Gehrig had been an icon of all of the great Yankee teams throughout the 20s and 30s. His reputation for being one of the physically strongest and best-conditioned players in baseball was surpassed only by his honesty, courage and modesty. He was simply one of the nicest and most beloved ballplayers that I ever met and a true gentleman.
ABOVE VIDEO: Lou Gehrig gave his farewell speech on July 4, 1939, at Yankee Stadium, and is considered the most famous speech in baseball history. It came just after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
SHADOW OF HIS FORMER SELF
I had last seen Lou in September of 1938. That year his average dipped to .295 with 170 hits, 29 home runs and 114 RBIs, a year that most Major League ballplayers would kill for. But for Lou, it was a harbinger of things to come.
When “The Iron-Horse” walked into the visitors’ clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park on May 10th I barely recognized him.
The aura of health and strength that his 6-foot-1-inch, 210-pound physique had previously always radiated was gone, replaced by a gaunt 190-pound shadow of his former self.
It seemed that Lou was moving in slow-motion, and his previous fluid and natural athleticism had been replaced by alternating deliberate and tentative action.
He dressed for both games of the series but seemed to have a difficult time even pulling on his famous number 4.
Babe Dahlgren had replaced him in the line-up at first base. “Buster” as Lou’s teammates fondly called him, didn’t play against the Browns, and never got back into the line-up again.
‘JIMMY, CAN YOU HELP ME WITH MY SHOES?’
After the final game of the series in which the Yankees lived up to their moniker of “The Bronx Bombers,” stomping the Browns 7-1 and 15-8, all the Yankee players came into the clubhouse to prepare for their trip back east. I had all their trunks packed with the help of Red Kern and Jim Cavanaugh.
As the players left, they paid their swindle sheet tabs, plus tip. (The Yankees were not only the best on the field but were among the best tippers too!). Because it took time for Lou to dress himself due to his deteriorating physical condition, he and I were alone in the clubhouse.
After everyone was gone except Lou, he called me over to his locker which was the second one from the door. He was trying to put on his shoes, which I had shined many times for him in the past.
“Jimmy, can you help me with my shoes,” he asked as he tried in vain to put them on.
He just couldn’t bend over from his stool far enough to even slip them on. My hands shook as I loosened the laces and then slipped both shoes on his feet, one at a time.
He smiled at me and said, “thanks.”
Then, after Lou attempted to tie them himself and as I stood by, he looked up and said, “Jimmy, I think you’d better tie them for me too – because I just can’t.”
My hands still shaking, I tied each of his shoelaces. He smiled at me again, drew a breath and rose from the stool. He paid his swindle sheet bill, said “thanks” and gave me a $10 tip.
I don’t think he noticed the tears in my eyes as he very slowly walked out of the visitor’s clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park for what would be the last time.
Since he was late in leaving, and walking so slowly, I followed him out and told him I’d get a cab so he wouldn’t have to walk down to the cabstand on Grand Avenue. Most of his teammates had already departed for Union Station to catch the train to Philadelphia.
I summoned Eddie Moran, the Black and White taxi dispatcher, and asked him to have a cab pick up Lou outside the press gate.
Lou and I had a couple of minutes alone together before the cab pulled up.
Always a polite and thoughtful man, he asked how my mother and father were.
When the cab arrived I opened the door for him. He shook my hand and said, “See you next trip Jimmy, and thanks for the help.”
I never saw him in person again.
I returned to the empty clubhouse and cried. Baseball’s gentle giant – a great man and what a player!
Read more “Clubhouse Chronicles of the Golden Era” at WhenItWasAGame.net
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vincent “Jimmy” Palermo, who died in 2010 at age 90, talked about baseball from a first-hand experience and perspective that few could.
Beginning in 1927, when he was six years old, until just before World War II in 1941, Palermo was a part of the St. Louis Browns organization.
His first job with the Browns was as the mascot of the team. At the age of nine he was made the batboy, and by 16 was managing the visitor’s clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park – home to both the Browns and Cardinals. Upon returning from the war, Palermo had to give up a promising professional umpiring career to assist his ailing father in the family businesses.
After living and working in St. Louis, he moved to Brevard County, Florida in 1988 with his wife Nadine to retire and enjoy the pride and pleasure of being near a loving family.