80 years later, Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech still strikes a poignant chord
There is a story from 1925 that is legendary in baseball lore, becoming as much fact as it is fiction. Wally Pipp, the veteran first baseman for the New York Yankees, arrived at the ballpark on June 2nd with a splitting headache. Pipp’s manager told him to take the day off, letting Pipp’s backup start the game instead.
That backup was a young man named Lou Gehrig.
Just 21 years old, Gehrig would go on to start the next 2,130 consecutive games for the Yankees. It was a record that would last until 1995, forever solidifying Gehrig’s place in sports fame and earning him the nickname of the Iron Horse.
There is only one player who is more renowned in Yankees history than Lou Gehrig, and that is Babe Ruth. Babe’s exploits, both on and off the field, were widely publicized by the press, and the slugger was well known for his womanizing and heavy drinking. But as much as Ruth was admired for his brash manners and roughhouse style of play, Gehrig was adored for his gentlemanly nature and kindness to fans.
In descriptions of Lou Gehrig, it is often written that he was quiet, dignified, and a strong leader. He did not seek to bring attention to himself, even if it meant that his feats would be overshadowed by those of Babe Ruth.
There’s another legend about Lou Gehrig, one that is based in fact but has been glamorized by Hollwood. In 1926, a hospitalized boy named Johnny Sylvester requested that Babe Ruth hit a home run for him. Ruth obliged in the next game, and the story was widely publicized by the national media.
But, as the story goes, Gehrig quietly made a similar promise, telling the young boy that he would hit two home runs. Like Babe, Gehrig delivered on his promise. Unlike Babe, Gehrig’s promise was not publicized by the press.
The story, which was depicted by actor Gary Cooper in the Hollywood sensation Pride of the Yankees, has never been verified. It is likely more legend than fact, but the truth remains the same — Gehrig would never rise to the legendary level of Babe Ruth, simply because that was not his goal. He didn’t seek idolization, nor did he seek to be known as anything other than a good man.
Gehrig’s stats are impressive, and he still stands as one of the greatest baseball players the world has ever seen. But his story is about more than just baseball.
Gehrig won an MVP award in both 1927 and 1936, batting .373 and .354, respectively. But by the end of 1938 and the beginning of 1939, it was clear that something was wrong. Gehrig’s feet began to betray him; his strength, remarkable in his prime, vanished practically overnight. In the matter of months, the best player in the country could no longer play.
There is no doubt how frustrating that time must have been for Lou Gehrig. His body only a shell of his former self, his playing skills just a remnant of what they once were — he must have been haunted with the gnawing question of why. Why was Gehrig’s body turning against itself?
On May 2nd, 1939, Gehrig removed himself from the Yankees lineup. The Iron Horse had come to a sudden halt, his streak of consecutive games ending abruptly.
In June of 1939, Gehrig was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The disease, ironically enough, is now commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
How cruel it is, that a player who wished to avoid fame for anything but his playing abilities should now be remembered for the disease that tortured his body. Gehrig had every right to feel angry, but he remained cautiously optimistic. In a letter to his wife, Gehrig wrote:
The bad news is lateral sclerosis, in our language chronic infantile paralysis. There isn’t any cure … there are very few of these cases. It is probably caused by some germ … Never heard of transmitting it to mates … There is a 50–50 chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years. Playing is out of the question ..
Even 10 to 15 years was evidently an overstatement; the disease would ravage Gehrig’s body in much less time. Gehrig must have known that he didn’t have much longer to live, and at times that knowledge did break through his quiet, dignified demeanor. During one trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Gehrig was greeted by a crowd of Boy Scouts. When the scouts wished him luck, Gehrig waved happily and smiled. But then he leaned close to a companion, whispering, “They’re wishing me luck — and I’m dying.”
“They’re wishing me luck — and I’m dying” — Lou Gehrig, 1939
Gehrig officially retired from baseball just two days after his ALS diagnosis. And on July 4, 1939, the New York Yankees held a “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” at Yankee Stadium.
The crowd cheered loudly as Lou Gehrig stepped up to the microphone, but then, as the player began talking, something in the stadium changed. There was a sudden silence, a removal of everything but the lone man who stood by himself. In that moment he appeared to be the loneliest man in the world, a man facing what amounted to a sure death sentence. Nothing could save him, and Gehrig knew it. His teammates knew it. His fans knew it.
And then Gehrig began talking in a low, steady voice. Struggling to fight back tears, the first baseman delivered one of the most memorable speeches in American history. He spoke of the fans, of his family, of the men he played with, of his loving wife. But what is more remarkable may be what he didn’t say. He didn’t speak of his records, of his playing abilities, or even of how he could have been better if he had more time to play. There was no gloating, no boasting — just the open, vulnerable words of a man who was thankful for his time on earth.
Most memorable of all were the words, “For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
The New York Times wrote of the moment:
It was without doubt one of the most touching scenes ever witnessed on a ball field and one that made even case-hardened ball players and chroniclers of the game swallow hard.
“Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” — Lou Gehrig, July 4th, 1939
Gehrig would pass away less than two years later, just 37 years old. Today, he is remembered as one of the finest baseball players to have ever played the game. But more than that, he is remembered as a good man. His quiet strength, his optimism, his kindness — the name “Lou Gehrig” stirs thoughts of such noble characteristics.
And for us, 80 years later — perhaps there is a lesson in Lou Gehrig’s story, a reminder to seek the good in life. Optimism, in even the darkest moments, is something to admire and attempt. Yes, we will get bad breaks. But, like Lou, it is those moments that remind us of just how lucky we are.
Perhaps the only fitting conclusion is delivered by the Iron Horse himself:
For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. 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.
When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such a fine looking men as they’re standing in uniform in this ballpark today? 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 might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.
© Aaron Schnoor 2019