On This Day

lou gehrig, lou gehrig luckiest man, lou gehrig speech
Murray Becker/AP
Lou Gehrig wipes away a tear during a
tribute at Yankee Stadium, July 4, 1939.

On This Day: Lou Gehrig Delivers “Luckiest Man” Speech

July 04, 2011 05:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On July 4, 1939, in a farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, a terminally ill Lou Gehrig declared himself the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day

Lou Gehrig was the Yankees’ star first baseman and cleanup hitter, playing in 2,130 consecutive games between 1925 and 1939. His streak ended on May 2, when after weeks of feeling weak and lethargic he removed himself from the lineup.

He left the team to seek treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. On June 19—his 36th birthday—doctors informed him that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare, incurable neurodegenerative disease. Gehrig was told that his muscles would slowly deteriorate over the next several years, until there “may be little more than skin & bone.”

Gehrig refused to pity himself: “I guess I have to accept the bitter with the sweet. If this is the finish, I’ll take it.”

The Yankees decided to honor Gehrig in an Independence Day ceremony between games of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. The team retired Gehrig’s uniform number, the first time a major league player was given that honor. Former teammates and dignitaries came to pay tribute, and his team presented him with a trophy.

An emotional Gehrig spoke to the sellout crowd, saying, “Fans, 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.”

He said he felt privileged to play alongside his teammates and to have received gifts from so many people, including the rival New York Giants. Thanking his family, he praised his wife for showing “more courage than you dreamed existed.”

He finished, “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”

Shirley Povich, columnist for The Washington Post, described the scene at Yankee Stadium: “I saw strong men weep this afternoon, expressionless umpires swallow hard, and emotion pump the hearts and glaze the eyes of 61,000 baseball fans in Yankee Stadium. It was Lou Gehrig, tributes, honors, gifts heaped upon him, getting an overabundance of the thing he wanted least—sympathy. But it wasn’t maudlin. His friends were just letting their hair down in their earnestness to pay him honor. And they stopped just short of a good, mass cry.”

The Death of Lou Gehrig

Gehrig remained with the team for the rest of the 1939 season and watched from the bench as the Yankees won their fourth straight World Series. After the season, he was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, which waived the five-year waiting period required for all players.

At the personal request of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Gehrig accepted a job as a New York City parole commissioner. He served until the spring of 1941, when he had become so weak that he could barely hold a pen.

In letters written between 1939 and 1941 to Dr. Paul O’Leary of the Mayo Clinic, released publicly in 2009, Gehrig expresses hope of recovery, as O’Leary and Gehrig’s wife Eleanor chose not to tell him that his disease would certainly end his life.

Even as his condition declined, Gehrig tried to remain positive. On Jan. 13, 1941, he wrote, “Don’t think that I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present. I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”

On June 2, 1941, he succumbed to his illness, dying in his Bronx home at the age of 37.

Reference: Lou Gehrig’s Disease

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” is a painless but ultimately debilitating disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spine, resulting in a sudden loss of strength and eventually paralysis.

The Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association offers news and information, “stories of courage,” and an online ALS advocacy community, as well as resources for those coping with the disease.

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