July 4 was the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech, arguably the most famous speech in baseball history. The name, Lou Gehrig, is all too familiar to many people who wouldn’t know a baseball from a football and could care less. (Baseball fans would be surprised to know that there are an awful lot of people who fall into that category.) He is one of the few people who is famous for more than one thing. He is famous not only for being one of the greatest baseball players in history, but also for the fatal disease, which bears his name, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Laymen commonly refer to it as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
The cause of ALS is unknown. It attacks and destroys the motor function of the central nervous system, but, at the same time, the patient’s mind remains fully cognizant of what is happening. It is a progressive disease, relentless and incurable. It is one of the most horrible ways to die, for the patient, his caregivers, his relatives, and his friends.
Lou Gehrig, aka “The Iron Horse,” or “Larrupin Lou,” was born in NYC on June 19, 1903. He played 17 years in the Major Leagues, all for the Yankees. He is generally regarded as one of the best baseball players in MLB history (#6 on the Sporting News’ all-time list) and the best first baseman (as voted by the Baseball Writers’ Association in 1969). His accomplishments and awards would fill many pages, but I have listed the highlights below:
- Lifetime “slash” line (batting average, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage) of .340/.447/632 with 493 home runs and 1,995 RBI. If the home run total seems relatively modest, remember that Gehrig played before the home run “inflation” of the last 40 years, and at the time of his retirement his total ranked near the top.
- Triple Crown winner in 1934, one of only 13 players to accomplish that feat in the “Modern Era” (after 1901).
- Seven-time all-star.
- Six-time World Series champion.
- Voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
- Played in 2,130 consecutive games
- Hit 23 grand slams.
- Hit four home runs in one game, one of only 14 payers to do and the first in the “Modern Era.”
- Two-time AL MVP.
- Leading vote getter on All-Century team voted by fans in 1999.
When Gehrig was diagnosed few people had even heard of the disease, much less understood it. In fact, it was often confused with the more familiar polio. The well-known sportswriter, Jimmy Powers, even wrote in his column that Gehrig had contributed to the Yankees sub par 1938 season by introducing the “polio germ” into the “Yankees clubhouse” as if ALS were some communicable disease.
During the 1939 season the disease had progressed to the point where Gehrig could no longer play effectively, and he was forced to retire. The Yankees arranged for him to be honored between games of the July 4th doubleheader at the Stadium. Gehrig was shy, by nature, so when it came time for him to say a few words, he was reluctant to do so. But, eventually he summoned the nerve and delivered a short, but poignant speech. Afterwards, the crowd reacted with a two-minute ovation, and there were very few dry eyes among those who heard the speech either in person or over the radio.
The famous part where he characterized himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” resonated with the public and was subsequently immortalized by Hollywood in the film “Pride of the Yankees.” If you have the chance I recommend you play it on U-Tube. It will be well worth your time.
Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, but, ironically the disease that killed him has also ensured that he will always be remembered.