There is power in a moving speech. Throughout history, there have been speeches that had a profound impact on people. Some of these speeches left those who heard them feeling empowered. Some others left people shocked, while some rather emotional speeches left tears in the eyes of those who heard them. While many may think about political speeches immediately, we talk of ‘moving’ speeches when the context is limited to sports-related speeches; Lou Gehrig’s 1939 farewell speech rings a bell.
On 4 July 1939, a doubleheader between the Washington Senators and the New York Yankees ended up being overshadowed by the event which took place between the games. On this day, it was Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day and Lou Gehrig was pushed to speak to an audience of almost 62,000 people at the Yankee Stadium. Between the games, microphones were set up for the occasion and the media guys got ready for their radio broadcasts and recordings. There were addresses from representatives of the media, Gehrig’s former teammates, and the New York Mayor at the time, Fiorello La Guardia. Gehrig stood there through their speeches, with his hat in his hand and his face looking downwards. When it was time for Gehrig to speak, he was hesitant. He was introduced to the crowd but stood in silence and eventually whispered something to Sid Mercer, the event MC and sports journalist. Mercer then told the crowd that Gehrig was thankful but could not speak as he was too moved. The audience was not having that. They wanted the man of the moment to speak for himself. Chants of “We want Lou!” rang throughout the stadium demanding the address of the Iron Horse of baseball. Gehrig was known as such because of his durability in play and also his prowess as a hitter. After encouragement from the New York Yankees manager, Joe McCarthy, Gehrig stepped up to the microphones. He wiped off his tears and gave baseball’s most memorable 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 this 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 honour 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 may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”
The Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day event was the first ceremony of its kind in baseball. Two weeks before this day, Gehrig visited the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) on his 36th birthday. Even if he suspected something was wrong, one wonders what would have gone through Gehrig’s head on receiving such information.
ALS is a neuromuscular disease which leads to paralysis and is now familiarly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. As a result of the diagnosis and from recommendations by the doctor, Gehrig had to retire. With permission from McCarthy, Gehrig benched himself in his team’s games just before this; his performances in the play had begun to be affected by the disease before the diagnosis. Gehrig felt that he was holding the team back in some of his games. This led to his decision to bench himself. That led to the end of his impressive consecutive games streak at 2130. This record would go on to stand from 1939 until 1995, when Cal Ripken Jr broke it.
A lot of Gehrig’s speech no longer exists as an intact recording, but a few lines can still be seen on video footage from the day. The speech is still well regarded by sports journalists and writers today. It is a speech that is full of character. It is called Baseball’s Gettysburg address. It shows a man of a modest disposition, accepting his fate, and yet having the drive to go on not just existing but living life to its possible fullest. It shows a man aware of the fortunes in his life despite the challenges he now faces. It reveals a man of good sportsmanship. It reveals a man who was not just a sports star, but an everyday relatable human being. This is why till today, reading through Gehrig’s words can still leave one with watery eyes and shakes of the head. Gehrig simply stated what his family, friends, fans and baseball meant to him. Many of those present at the ceremony were emotional at his words. Babe Ruth, Gehrig’s former teammate who had an ongoing feud with Gehrig, was so moved to tears by the speech that he went over to shake Gehrig’s hand but instead, hugged him. Gehrig who had looked awkward and pensive all through the ceremony was able to crack a smile when this happened.
Lou Gehrig loved baseball. It was the sport of his childhood. It was also the sport of his adulthood. At Columbia University, he played baseball. At 19, he made his major league debut with the New York Yankees in 1923. At 24, he won his first MVP award. By 35, he had won six world series. He finished with 493 home runs. He was also the first American League player to hit four home runs in a game. Gehrig’s last game appearance would later happen on April 30 1939, though he wasn’t officially retired until January 6 1940.
Numerous gifts were given to Gehrig during the ceremony. Of particular importance is the silver trophy he received from his teammates. It was presented to him by McCarthy. One side of the trophy had all the names of his current teammates, while the other side had a poem written by sports journalist John Kieran, who was also Gehrig’s neighbour. The trophy is characterised by an eagle perched on the top of a baseball supported by six bats. Gehrig also received a fruit bowl and two candlesticks from the New York Giants; a silver service set from the Yankees front office; a three-handled silver cup from the Yankees office staff; a scroll from Washington fans; and a scroll from the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, among others.
After his speech, Gehrig walked to his team’s dugout carrying only the trophy from his teammates. John Kieran who wrote the poem on the trophy later revealed that he was approached by Bill Dickey, Gehrig’s teammate and room-mate on the road, to write something about how the Yankees felt about Gehrig.
The poem itself read:
To LOU GEHRIG
We’ve been to the wars together;
We took our foes as they came:
And always you were the leader,
And ever you played the game.
Idol of cheering millions:
Records are yours by sheaves:
Iron of frame they hailed you,
Decked you with laurel leaves.
But higher than that we hold you,
We who have known you best;
Knowing the way you came through
Every human test.
Let this be a silent token
Of lasting friendship’s gleam
And all that we’ve left unspoken.
Your Pals of the Yankee Team.
Kieran would later report that Gehrig, after his illness had progressed, once pointed to the trophy and remarked that whenever he read the poem, he believed it, and that made him feel pretty good.
Gehrig passed away at the age of 37 on the 2nd of June, 1941, about two years after his famous speech. Soon after his death, Kieran was asked by Eleanor, Gehrig’s widow, to make the announcement of Gehrig’s passing to the newspapers. He was also an honorary pallbearer at Gehrig’s funeral. Eleanor Gehrig’s estate donated the trophy he received from his teammates to the Hall of Fame in 1985, after her death in 1984. It is currently housed on the second floor of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in New York. It can be seen as part of an exhibit dedicated to the Yankees of the late 1930s and early 1940s. The exhibit also includes the glove and bronzed baseball shoe Gehrig used in his final game on the 30th of April, 1939.
After his farewell, there was a general feeling Gehrig needed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame while he was alive. On the 7th of December, 1939, the Baseball Writer’s Association of America (BBWAA) voted unanimously to suspend the usual waiting period and instead placed Gehrig in the Baseball Hall of Fame immediately. The Yankees also honoured Gehrig with a monument in the centre field of their stadium in 1941.
Many nowadays would argue that sports need more humble stars who don’t carry the air of entitlement and superiority which sometimes pervade sportspeople. Even though that is a debatable stance, the fact remains that Lou Gehrig was a prime example of such a man. His home run record and games streak still remain as impressive today as they were back then. His name will live on in the hearts of baseball fans.
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