Words and Tears
A beautiful farewell speech: Lou Gehrig
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.
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.