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This Fourth of July marks not only the 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but also the 75th anniversary of the most memorable speech in sports annals. Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest man on the face of the earth” oratory is considered baseball’s Gettysburg Address. Though just 277 words long, it was so moving, so eloquent that William Safire included it in a book about history’s greatest speeches, alongside those delivered by popes, presidents, kings, playwrights and philosophers. That this once strapping, seemingly indestructible New York Yankees slugger was able to express such optimism and gratitude in the face of death remains a transcendent moment three quarters of a century later. On a sweltering Independence Day at a packed Yankee Stadium in 1939, Gehrig came through without picking up a bat. The renowned line-drive hitter delivered lines that have stood the test of time.
Despite compiling astonishing statistics during a Hall of Fame baseball career that saw him log 2,130 consecutive games, drive in 1,995 runs and bat .340, Gehrig played in the Empire State Building-sized shadow cast by his flamboyant, incomparable teammate, Babe Ruth. “I always knew that as long as I was following Babe to the plate, I could have gone up there and stood on my head and no one would have noticed the difference,” he said. “When the Babe was through swinging, whether he hit one or fanned, nobody paid any attention to the next hitter. They all were talking about what the Babe had done.”
And Gehrig was fine with that, because this humble son of German immigrants who attended Columbia University before signing with the Yankees didn’t care to be in the spotlight. The feat of doing his job every day, every season, season after season, was reward enough for the man who became known as the “Iron Horse.” Gehrig went 14 consecutive seasons without missing a game, enduring 17 fractures in his hands, several beanings, severe back pain, and other illnesses and injuries that would have sidelined lesser men.
Though only 35 years old, Gehrig began experiencing an abrupt physical decline at the start of the 1939 season. By the end of April, he was hitting just .143 with one RBI and was having problems with his motor skills and balance. On May 2, before a game against the Tigers in Detroit, he told Yankees manager Joe McCarthy that he was “benching” himself. McCarthy attempted to talk him out of it, but eventually acquiesced and put Babe Dahlgren in at first base. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time Lou Gehrig’s name will not appear on the Yankee lineup card in 2,130 consecutive games,” the public address announcer told the fans at Briggs Stadium. After digesting the shocking news, the spectators rose as one and gave Gehrig a thunderous ovation. He wiped away tears in the dugout. Although he would continue to suit up for the remainder of the season, he would never play again.
A month later, with his condition worsening, he visited the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he was diagnosed with the disease that would come to bear his name: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS—a hideous malady that destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and results in paralysis and death, usually within five years. Shortly after receiving the devastating prognosis, he retired, and Yankees owner Ed Barrow immediately announced that “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” would be held at the big ballpark in the Bronx that Independence Day.
McCarthy, who regarded Gehrig like a son, had difficulty controlling his emotions when it was his turn to speak to the crowd of 61,808. After calling Gehrig the “finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman and citizen that baseball has ever known,” he turned tearfully to his favorite player and recounted the day Lou begged out of the lineup. “Lou, what else can I say except that it was a sad day in the life of everybody who knew you when you came into my hotel room that day in Detroit and told me you were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God, man, you were never that.”
And then it was time for Gehrig to address the throng. Although he had prepared a speech, he was reluctant to deliver it. In fact, beforehand, he reportedly told McCarthy: “I’d give a month’s pay to get out of this.” Several seconds passed, then the anxious crowd began chanting: “We want Lou! We want Lou!” McCarthy went over and whispered something in Gehrig’s ear. The Iron Horse nodded, then walked slowly to the microphones. The chants ceased. The stadium became silent.
“Fans,” he began, his head bowed, his voice booming, “for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” In his distinctive New York accent, Gehrig went on to cite all the things he was grateful for, starting with baseball and concluding with his parents and his beloved wife, Eleanor. “So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
As the crowd roared, Ruth walked over to Gehrig and hugged him tightly. The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its eligibility rules and the writers voted to induct him into the shrine immediately. The Yankees retired his No. 4 jersey, making him the first athlete ever to be so honored. On June 2, 1941, just 17 days before his 38th birthday, Gehrig died.
Thanks, in large part, to the movie, “Pride of the Yankees,” starring Gary Cooper, Gehrig’s inspirational deeds and words live on. The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and Major League Baseball parks throughout North America are commemorating the Iron Horse’s speech this week. Seventy-five years later, Gehrig continues to inspire; continues to remind us to be grateful for the experiences we’ve had and the people we’ve met; encourages us to feel like the luckiest people on the face of this earth.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is in his 41st year as a journalist.
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