A little more than 41 years ago, the New York Yankees announced the sudden retirement of one of the most determined and accomplished players in big league history. They also declared July 4, 1939 "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day."
The Yankee first baseman nicknamed "The Iron Horse" because of his incredible 2,130 game streak was stepping away from the game in which he excelled due to illness. Just weeks earlier, Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS, a particularly aggressive and fatal neurological disease.
That Independence Day, Gehrig indelibly touched the hearts of 62,000 fans, teammates, and coaches in Yankee Stadium by famously proclaiming himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Video and accounts of the ceremony and Gehrig's address continue to touch baseball and non-baseball fans alike.
The slugger had a brilliant career that has been recognized by being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and the greatest first baseman on Major League Baseball's All-Century Team. And, importantly, his long-time manager Joe McCarthy described Gehrig as "the finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman, and citizen that baseball has ever known."
Although Gehrig had played 17 years—his career and life were cut far too short. On June 2, 1941, Gehrig passed away.
In honor of this great player, we recognize 10 baseball stars who also had their careers cut short due to injury, illness or death.
The Chicago Cubs drafted pitcher Mark Prior with the second pick of the 2001 amateur draft. Although he was considered the top player, the Minnesota Twins passed on him because of concerns about his asking price.
Interestingly, the Twins consolation prize was local hero Joe Mauer, while the Cubs signed Prior to a record $10.5 million contract. Mauer has captured three batting titles and turned into one of baseball's best players.
Prior appeared on his way to fulfill his tremendous promise when he posted an 18-6 record, 2.43 ERA, and 245 strikeouts in his first full season. For his efforts, Prior earned All-Star honors and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting.
Unfortunately, injuries started to accumulate. The next season he suffered an Achilles tendon injury, but returned to record 16 Ks in a start against the Reds.
The next four seasons were marred with a variety of injuries including a fractured elbow and shoulder tear that required reconstructive surgery. The Stephen Strasburg of his time now sits waiting for a team to call and give the 29-year-old hurler a chance to resurrect his career.
Just three years before Mark Prior was selected with the second overall pick of the draft, another highly-touted pitcher named Mark was chosen in the same spot. The Oakland A's selected Mark Mulder and fast tracked him to the majors in 2000.
The lanky lefty from Michigan State quickly developed and registered a league-best 21-8 record in his sophomore season. For his efforts, Mulder finished second in the Cy Young voting.
From 2001 to 2004, Mulder led the Athletics to four postseason appearances, mounting a 72-32 record. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals prior to the 2005 season and continued his strong pitching with a 16-8 mark.
The next year he got off to a 5-1 start before his performance suddenly tanked. After several ineffective outings, Mulder was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff that effectively ended his career. He never won another game and was shortly out of baseball at age 30.
In 1955, the Cleveland Indians added rookie Herb Score to a pitching staff that already included future Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Early Wynn, and Bob Lemon. The lefty hurler quickly fit in with his blazing fastball.
Score earned Rookie of the Year honors by virtue of a 16-10 record, 2.85 ERA, and a league-leading 245 strikeouts in just 227 innings of work. He was also elected to the All-Star squad while his more accomplished teammates sat at home.
He followed that up with a 20-9 and 2.53 ERA season in 1956 that garnered another All-Star appearance. Score also led the league with five shutouts and 263 strikeouts.
Early the next season, Score was hit in the face with a blistering line drive that shattered several bones. Although he returned later the next season, the pitcher appeared to have changed his motion due to fear of being hit again.
Score then tore a tendon in his pitching arm and never approached the same level of greatness he displayed during his first two campaigns. He finished his career with just 17 more wins after the infamous line drive.
Lyman Bostock was a budding young star who was senselessly murdered in the last week of the 1978 season. The talented outfielder was gunned down while visiting a relative on a road trip to Chicago.
Bostock began his career with the Minnesota Twins in 1975, batting .282 in approximately two-thirds of a season. He followed that up by hitting .323 and .336 the next two seasons before signing a lucrative free agent contract with the California Angels.
When Bostock slumped badly in his first month, he attempted to give salary back to the Angels organization. They refused the gesture, so he donated his salary to charity. Of course, he turned things around to end the season in the top 10 batting leaders.
Besides accumulating a .311 lifetime average, Bostock displayed fine skills as an outfielder and was stand-up teammate. Then at just 27 years old, appearing to have his best playing days ahead of him, Bostock sadly and suddenly lost his life to an unknown gunman.
The late Mark Fidrych burst onto the Major League scene with an unexpectedly dominant rookie season.
After making the Detroit Tigers squad as a non-roster spring training invitee, Fidrych turned a mid-May starting opportunity into a spectacular American League Rookie of the Year season. He went on to record a 19-9 record as well as a league leading 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games.
"The Bird" (as he was nicknamed by a minor league coach) quickly became one of the most popular and entertaining players in baseball. Besides his stellar pitching, the free spirit captured fans hearts with various antics such as talking to the ball and himself, manicuring the mound on his knees, and many more too numerous to mention.
The following season Fidrych was off to a strong start when he suffered an arm injury. Although it was not diagnosed until much later, it was determined that he had a torn rotator cuff and never was the same pitcher again.
He won but four more games and finished his big-league career in 1980. Sadly, Fidrych was killed in a farming accident in 2009.
After being used sparingly for most of his early career, J.R. Richard emerged as one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball from 1976 to 1980. During that period, the 6'8" right-hander accumulated an 84-55 record with a 2.79 ERA.
Richard's big-league career came to a sudden end in 1980 when he suffered a stroke while throwing prior to a game. Although he continued to work towards a return, Richard never made it back to the major leagues before finally calling it quits in 1984.
Prior to the debilitating stroke, the towering Richard was an intimidating presence on the mound, featuring one of the best fastballs and sliders in the game. Twice he led the National League with over 300 strikeouts in a season.
Richard fell on hard times after his playing days were over. Two divorces and a failed business deal left him homeless. After finding refuge with his church, Richard went on to become a pastor himself and a leader of youth baseball programs in Houston.
He was a perennial All-Star catcher and the on-field quarterback of the New York Yankees throughout the 70s. Thurman Munson eventually became team captain, including on the 1977 and 1978 World Championship teams.
Munson was elected to the AL All-Star squad seven times in 11 seasons. Additionally, he was recognized with the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP Awards as well as three Gold Gloves.
Playing the most physically demanding position, Munson batted .292 over his career. In the post season, he took his game to the next level, hitting a lofty .357 over 30 games.
Late in the 1979 season, while practicing flying his new jet, Munson crashed while landing and was killed. He was just 32, leaving his wife, three children, and millions of adoring fans behind.
Kirby Puckett was a five-tool player who enjoyed an excellent 12-year career with the Minnesota Twins. Sadly, tragedy suddenly ended his baseball career and then his life.
During the 1995 season, Puckett woke up without vision in his right eye one morning. A 10th consecutive All-Star season was interrupted and Puckett was forced to suddenly retire.
Eleven years later, Puckett suffered a stroke and he passed away at just 45-years of age.
The Twins center fielder batted .318 over his career and annually finished high in the MVP voting. Puckett won six Gold Gloves, six Silver Sluggers, and was a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 2001.
Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax is unarguably one of the most talented pitchers in the history of baseball. Regrettably, health problems forced him to walk away from the game at the peak of his career.
The 1966 season was both his finest and final campaign of his abbreviated career. Koufax won his third Cy Young in four years when he went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and 317 Ks.
With arthritis continuing to make pitching and daily life increasingly painful, the Los Angeles Dodgers lefty walked away from the game at just 30 years of age. Koufax's 165-87 record, 2.76 ERA and 2,376 strikeouts in just 2,324 innings made him a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee.
Roberto Clemente played 18 terrific seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1972. He was an integral part of two separate World Series Championship teams in 1960 and 1971.
Clemente was a 15-time All-Star selection, won a dozen Gold Glove Awards, was awarded the 1966 NL MVP, and was named the 1971 World Series MVP. The strong-armed right fielder batted .317 over his career with a .475 slugging percentage.
As good as he was on the field, Clemente was even better off it. He donated countless funds and personal time to help others less fortunate than himself.
On the last day of the 1972 season, Clemente smacked a double to register his 3,000th major league hit. Regrettably, it would be his last.
On New Year's Eve, while on a mission to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua, Clemente's plane crashed into the ocean—killing all aboard. Just months later, the Baseball Writers of America held a special election to induct him into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In recognition of Clemente's humanitarian efforts and death while serving others, Major League Baseball now annually presents an award bearing his name to a player who exhibits similar outstanding service.