Here is another great speech in the annals of American history as highly emotionally charged words given by heroes in the twilight of their lives.
This speech was given by Lou Gehrig in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. The greatest first baseman in baseball history was honored by his New York Yankee teammates and friends before he reluctantly stood behind a host of microphones to give one of the most powerful and heart-felt of impromptu speeches.
Lou Gehrig, named the Iron Horse because of his then record of his 2,130 consecutive major league baseball games played, recognized that his baseball skills were gradually declining. The most treasured baseball player in New York Yankee history, his all-around performance as first baseman for seventeen seasons is unparalleled. A member of six World Series championship teams and a two-time league most valuable player, Gehrig had compiled career statistics beyond all measure. But on May 2, 1939, Lou Gehrig, the Yankee captain, told manager Joe McCarthy that for the benefit of the team, he had determined that he could not play to his previous standards. With that decision he removed himself from the starting lineup and broke his seemingly insurmountable consecutive games streak of games played—a record that would stand for 56 years, broken only by Cal Ripken, Jr. in 1995.
On July 4, 1939, Gehrig, wearing his beloved pin-striped uniform that no longer fit, stepped onto the field of glory. The hushed capacity crowd watched intently as he feebly walked with head bowed and his arms hanging weakly at his side. It was Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. He was thirty-six years old and dying of a crippling disease that today bears his name. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was gradually taking his life.
His Yankee teammates and the opposition, the Washington Senators, lined up on the infield grass in preparation for the ceremony. More than 61,000 fans crowded into the stands. His wife and parents watch from their third-base line seats. Lou kept his head bowed. The announcer on the field introduced special guests, including his former teammate Babe Ruth and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Lou fidgeted, twisting his blue Yankee hat, and swaying back and forth. He quietly listened to several short speeches and received special gifts from his team and friends without saying a word. The stunned crowd politely applauded.
Never one to flamboyantly seek publicity as was a matter of some, Gehrig was still unconditionally idolized by the adoring crowds.
Once the presentations concluded, the master of ceremonies, Sid Mercer, asked Lou to say a few words. Gehrig quietly shook his head. He was fearful that he might fall if he approached the microphone. The fans, recognizing that this would be the final time that they would see him in a Yankee uniform, feverishly clamored for him to speak. They stood on their feet, clapped their hands, and shouted “We want Lou! We want Lou!” Lou Gehrig stood still until his manager McCarthy urged him to say a few words. Lou hesitantly nodded and stepped to the microphone. Silence fell across Yankee Stadium. Gehrig drew a deep breath, stepped toward the microphone, and delivered one of the strongest—and saddest--inspirational messages in the annals of sports.
Surprisingly, only four sentences of Gehrig’s speech were included in the newsreel coverage of that day, which is the only recording that remains. What has come down to us is a reconstruction of his speech, drawn from the film and newspaper accounts. As a result, there are variations from one copy of the speech to another, but the following is his somewhat unprepared, impromptu speech in its entirety (including a few small changes from the recording indicated by the parentheses and the insertion of the fourth sentence, which was recorded but it left out virtually all the current transcripts). It is considered the greatest speech in sports history—a speech for the ages:
Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a 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? 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 Rupert? 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 and squabbles against her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and 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 tough break – but I’ve got an awful lot to live for! Thank you.