I have a close friend who knows a great deal about the game of baseball. I always defer to his knowledge in discussions of the sport. We were recently talking about the relative merits of modern ball players when compared to the great figures of earlier generations. It is a debate that has no end, of course, but it is still entertaining.
The conversation turned to Lou Gehrig, and his how his record of continuous games played was thought to be unbreakable until Cal Ripken broke it in 1995. The more I learned about Gehrig, the more I came to admire him.
The statistic books tell us the raw story of his life in the game:
- He played 17 seasons with the New York Yankees from 1923 to 1939
- He had a career batting average of .340.
- He held the record for the most consecutive games played (2130) for 56 years.
- He had an on-base average of .447, was elected to the Hall of Fame, and was the first player to have had his number retired.
Beyond all this, Gehrig was a good man who worked hard his entire life, never complained about the hand of cards dealt him by Fate, and was never anything but a gentleman to others, from the lowliest groundskeeper to the most powerful team-owner.
He as a native of New York City. Born in 1903 to a poor German immigrant family, he was forced to help his mother provide for the household during his father’s frequent periods of alcoholic inactivity. His large frame and obvious athletic ability were his saving graces; he attended Columbia University on a football scholarship, although he did not graduate. The lure of professional sports was too strong.
For a time he played both baseball and football. He was originally groomed to be a pitcher in baseball, but his powerful hitting steered him off the mound to first base, a position that he would make his own while with the Yankees.
He signed with the Yankees in 1923. He did not immediately distinguish himself. But by 1927-1928, it was clear that he was one of the team’s most exceptional players. He and Babe Ruth were both playing for the Yankees at this time and were silent, but obvious, competitors.
Yet he never spoke a harsh or ill word to him or any other team-mate. Indeed, there seems to be no record of his having quarreled with anyone. Greatness of soul does not need to aggrandize itself with chest-beating bravado.
His most impressive record, of course, was the streak of consecutive games played. Some of these games he played through while seriously ill or injured. Batting helmets were not widely used until the 1940s, and there are several cases of Gehrig’s having been hit in the head and knocked out by pitches, and yet continuing to play. One wonders if today’s millionaire athletes would, or could, duplicate this sort of grit.
In 1939, disturbing signs appeared that something was not right with him physically. His performance dropped sharply; he was no longer able to run the bases effectively; and his hitting fell to a trickle of what it once was. His once impressive physique also began to deteriorate. It was obvious that something was wrong, but no one knew exactly what it was.
A visit to the Mayo Clinic in the American midwest in 1936 confirmed that Gehrig was suffering from an ailment called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The disease involves a gradual wasting away of the muscles, with associated loss of motor skills. Its causes are believed to be genetic or inherited. Diagnosed cases are not expected to live very many years.
For a professional athlete, it must have been devastating news, especially since the disease only affects the body, not the mind: meaning, of course, that a sufferer would be fully aware of the deterioration of his body, but be powerless to do anything about it.
Gehrig retired that year from professional sports. The news of his illness was especially devastating for a man with whom he had a very close relationship over the years, Yankee manager Joe McCarthy.
In 1939, he delivered what has since come to be considered one of the greatest–if not the greatest–speech in sports history. Surely in emotional impact and quiet dignity it remains an unrivaled masterpiece of personal composure.
On July 4, 1939, his team mates held a ceremony in his honor before a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium. Gehrig did not originally want this honor; a man of modesty and decorum, he felt that it might distract from the team’s priorities.
He also was sensitive to the deterioration of his body that had taken place in the several years since his diagnosis. But he was finally moved to speak to the crowd.
There is no complete film record of his short speech, which was less than 280 words in length. The filmed record of the speech is fragmentary, and omits several sentences. And yet it is moving beyond words. There are no platitudes about overcoming adversity, and no sympathy-seeking self-aggrandizement; indeed, he called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
There is instead only an expression of gratitude to his comrades and fellow-travelers. And somehow this is far more effective, in its own understated way.
Here is the complete text of his address:
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.
When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are 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 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.
Here is the surviving film footage of the speech. When he was finished, the crowd stood and applauded him for over two minutes. And there was not a dry eye in the stadium.
Eloquence needs no erudition, only sincerity.
The end came quietly on June 2, 1941. He was 37 years old.
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