Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 6, 2014

The Luckiest Man Lives On

It was a 4th of July, in many ways probably not unlike the one we have all just celebrated; but this one was three-quarters of a century ago. Through 75 ensuing summers successive generations of players have taken the field for a countless number of contests at all levels of the Great Game, in ballparks both great and humble. Some have become All-Stars and Hall of Famers. Most are anonymous, their time in baseball known only to family and friends.

The great number lived long and hopefully happy lives after their playing days were done; though more than a few have been taken from us too soon, in ways too often tragic. That mournful count includes one other Yankee captain. But on this holiday weekend we remember that earlier Independence Day, when 61,000 fans filled the old Stadium to overflowing, all there to say goodbye to New York’s first captain, Lou Gehrig.

Seven plus decades is a long time, and the number of fans who can offer a firsthand account of that day is declining. What passes for memory now is the sight of old black and white photographs or grainy video footage; yet even those who are not great fans of baseball have probably seen them at least once. They show the packed house in the South Bronx, bunting hanging from the façade of the Stadium’s upper deck. It had been just two months since Gehrig had told manager Joe McCarthy that he was benching himself, ending his streak of 2,130 consecutive games. Scarcely two weeks had passed since extensive testing at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic had produced the dread diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that would come to bear Gehrig’s name. Less than 48 hours after the deadly prognosis was made public, the Yankees announced the Iron Horse’s retirement.

Between games of the July 4th doubleheader against Washington, the Yankees and their fans honored their stricken leader. There were the players lined up on the field, joined by members of the 1927 Murder’s Row squad including the Babe. Team officials and dignitaries including Mayor La Guardia and Postmaster General Farley extolled Gehrig and presented him with gifts.

Yet close observers of the old record can see the toll which the steadily progressing ALS had already taken. The number 4 jersey, about to become the first number to be retired by any of the Great Game’s franchises, hangs baggily on suddenly stooped shoulders. Gehrig quickly sets a trophy handed him by manager McCarthy on the ground, his arms no longer strong enough to carry the award.

Overcome with emotion, Gehrig at first declined to speak. But as chants of “We want Lou!” echoed down from all three decks, McCarthy gently pushed him to the microphone. Everyone knows the immortal sound bite with which Gehrig began his remarks. But his speech is far more than its opening two sentences, and it lives on today as American oratory that transcends its speaker’s sport.

“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 the 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 honor 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 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 bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”

In a time when too many of our sports heroes display an air of entitlement, Gehrig’s remarks should serve to remind them that without the fans there would be no games. His recognition of teammates, managers, and the great Yankee owner Ruppert and general manager Barrow emphasize that as much as we glorify individual achievement, ultimate success in most of our major sports is possible only through team effort. By taking the time to remember opponents and stadium employees, and to raise up members of his family above all others, Gehrig displays a humanizing humility that draws us closer to him.

Most of all, by returning time and again to his initial theme of good fortune, even in the face of personal catastrophe, Gehrig’s speech places the Great Game and all sports in their proper place. How truly fortunate he and all athletes have been and are to be able to play a game for a living. How fortunate we are to be able to cheer them on as grand diversions from the greater cares of life. Ultimately, how fundamentally American to consider oneself lucky for all that one has, even when facing death.

Lou Gehrig did not see two more Independence Days. The years pass, and memories fade. The Iron Horse’s unbreakable record has been broken. Other numbers have been retired, other heroes have faced their own travails and sometimes, sadly, their own personal tragedies. Yet Gehrig’s speech lives on, still and always the defining statement of the ineffable joy that is an integral part of being a professional ballplayer.

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