On July 4, 1939, between games of a doubleheader, the Yankees honored Lou Gehrig. That was 70 years ago today.
The great slugger, who had quit the game the previous April because of a mysterious illness we now know as ALS, had his number 4 retired and was presented with a number of gifts he was too weak to hold. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia spoke to the crowd of 61,808. The Iron Horse, he said, was “the greatest prototype of good sportsmanship and citizenship.”
Then Gehrig himself spoke, giving what is considered the greatest speech in baseball history:
“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 this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 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 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 may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
Gehrig died less than two years later. He spent his final days as a parole officer in New York City.
The Yankees will remember one of their greatest players today with a video tribute that includes current players reciting portions of his speech. The players will wear a “4ALS” patch and the No. 4 will be on first base. The Yankees also will contribute $25,000 to the ALS Association of Greater New York.
Next time you’re at the Stadium, stop inside of Gate 4. There is a photo of Gehrig there and his speech is played on a continual loop.
It’s almost impossible to describe how great Gehrig was. He hit .340 with a .447 on-base percentage and a .632 slugging percentage for his career. He had 1,190 extra-base hits in 2,164 games and drew 1,508 walks. He is third all-time in OPS behind Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
Read Luckiest Man by Jonathan Eig if you want to learn more about this great man. I’d also suggest you visit Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, where Gehrig’s ashes were interred. Babe Ruth is buried at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery next door.
If nothing else, take a take moment today if you’re at the Stadium or watching on television and remember Lou Gehrig.
The Yankees will do their part. The players will wear “4ALS” patches on their uniforms and first base will have a No. 4 on it. Most importantly. the team will honor Michael Goldsmith, an ALS victim who prodded Major League Baseball to begin an ALS initiative on July 4 at parks across the country.
I was lucky enough to see the touching piece YES did on Michael and you should watch it today before the game. It’s a terrific piece that ends with current Yankees reciting passages of the famed speech.
UPDATE, 1:39 p.m.: If you want to watch Pride Of The Yankees, the Gary Cooper movie about Gehrig, you can watch for free on Hulu.