Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Luckiest

eventy Fourths of July ago, 61,808 fans packed Yankee Stadium. With an Herculean record of 52-17, the Yankees were in first place in the AL by 11.5 games and well on the way to their fourth straight World Series victory, but fans didn't just come for the doubleheader against the Washington Senators.

They were there for Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse was a major part of the previous three titles, and three more before that, hitting .371/.477/.731 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in 34 WS games. But the 1939 team would have to do it without him.

Gehrig placed in the top five in the AL MVP voting every year from 1931 to 1937, but right around the All-Star break in '38, his production started to slide. He still finished the year with 29HRs, but just two years earlier he had hit twenty more. Lou was 35 years old and he couldn't pinpoint what exactly was wrong with himself: "I tired mid-season. I don't know why, but I just couldn't get going again."

If it was just fatigue, one would think that the offseason would have done him well, however when he should up to St. Petersburg for Spring Training in 1939, he had lost even more power. It became apparent that this wasn't your average career arc. James Kahn, a reporter for the New York Graphic wrote at the time:
I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don't know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing. I have seen ballplayers 'go' overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done. But they were simply washed up as ballplayers. It's something deeper than that in this case, though.
Unfortunately, Kahn was right. What he was witnessing were the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in action.

Still unaware that there was a fatal illness consuming him from within, Gehrig started the regular season as planned. Yankees Manager Joe McCarthy found himself between a rock and a hard place. It was simultaneously painfully obvious and totally inconceivable that The Iron Horse, owner of a .340 lifetime batting average and carrier of the awe-inspiring consecutive games played streak was done for. With Babe Ruth four years removed from Pinstripes, Lou Gehrig was the cornerstone and face of the franchise, his tenure with the Yanks predating McCarthy's by 8 years. There was no way the Skipper was going to sit Gehrig.

Gehrig's breaking point came when he covered first base on a routine groundball and was congratulated by pitcher Johnny Murphy. He had just 4 hits in 33 plate appearances, but had only struck out one time. He was making contact, but with nothing behind it. Before a game against the Tigers on May 2nd, he finally caved in, benching himself. He took the lineup card out to the umpires himself and it was announced over the PA system that he would not be playing. Fans gave him a standing ovation as he stood on the steps of the dugout.

It wasn't until June 13th that Gehrig and his wife, Eleanor visited the Mayo Clinic to see what was actually wrong. Six days later, on his 36th birthday, he was diagnosed with ALS. Two days later, the Yankees decided that July 4th would be "Lou Gehrig Appreaciation Day" and there would be a ceremony held between the doubleheader against the Senators.

The all of the components of the famed 1927 "Murderer's Row" line up were in attendance. Speeches were giving by mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Postmaster General James Farley, Joe McCarthy, and Babe Ruth. As I detailed more extensively before Spring Training, the two sluggers hadn't been on good terms since 1933, and this was the first time they put the grudge aside.

Gehrig took to the podium at the crossroads of two scenarios that everyone has probably imagined themselves in, but will most likely never experience. He was a legendary athlete with a death sentence. A iconic figure faced with a inevitable demise. He said he was the "luckiest man on the face of the earth" but so too was he the unluckiest.

It's hard to imagine a scenario quite like this one ever unfolding again. It's almost as if Gehrig got to attend his own funeral. Paradoxically, people save their most glowing praise and appreciation for those they love until it's too late for the person to hear it. He not only got to hear it, but got the chance to respond.

The full transcription of the speech can be found below.
"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
." — Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium, July 4, 1939


  1. That's not a knock, BTW.

  2. Not taken as one.

    It really is one of baseball's more memorable moments. Someone (Costas maybe, in the Burns documentary) referred to it as baseball's Gettysburg Address. Mickey Mantle said he never knew how a dying man could think of himself as lucky, until he was honored with his own day.