One of the enduring allures of Major League Baseball is the timeless figures that it has created in the American story, but also the great moments that it has been responsible for stand as monuments in the American way as well. Lou Gehrig remains chief among those figures to this day, and for all of the greatness that was his career as the New York Yankees first baseman, it’s also his combination of those two timeless elements in his final moment on the field that was his most enduring memory.
In the Iron Horse’s career, he drove in 1,992 runs, hit 493 home runs, won six World Series and played in a long-standing record of 2,130 consecutive games. Yet it was shortly after that record ended that Gehrig made the speech that still rings out as one of the great public addresses in American History. See, the incomparable Gehrig had been struck down by a then unknown disease that took away all of the great assets that made him the legend that he already was, and it happened out of nowhere. He was struck by what is now known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that took his strength, energy and dexterity, but kept his mental functions completely intact.
It became clear that baseball was over for him, and for many, it seemed his life was too by association. Think about it in the vein of when Magic Johnson made his initial HIV announcement, it was terrifying and deeply saddening for a nation that loved him. But for Gehrig himself, it was far from that. On July 4, 1939, the inherent competitive nature that made him a constant for all of those games gave him the drive to let everybody know that there was to life than just the game.
So, in recognition of a great American holiday that makes observance of the initial persistence of the nation to have its own way of life, I present to you Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech from Yankee Stadium, 74 years to the day.
Fans, 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 the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.
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