Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 4, 2019

The Luckiest Fans On The Face Of The Earth

Eight decades have now passed. There are doubtless a few still living who were there that Tuesday afternoon, little children among the 61,808 crammed into the old Stadium, perhaps standing on tiptoe and craning their necks to see around the adults in the next row. Those children are old men and women now, their memories slowly fading with the passage of time. But while those survivors are the dwindling few who can claim to having witnessed the moment in person, it has been recounted so often, it has become such a part of the Great Game’s lore, that fans not born until decades after 1939 know it as if they too had passed through the turnstiles and found a seat among the three decks of what was then a relatively new ballpark in the Bronx.

The Yankees played a doubleheader against the Washington Senators that 4th of July, and since baseball is a sport that has recorded every result and countless statistics since its earliest days, we know that Washington took the opener 3-2 while New York stormed back to win the second game 11-1. Dutch Leonard, who would go on to make five All-Star appearances, silenced the Yankee bats with his knuckleball in the first game, but a pair of Senators pitchers were not so lucky in the second, yielding all those runs and thirteen hits to New York’s offense, including three base knocks apiece to George Selkirk and young Joe DiMaggio.

Yet the scores were secondary on that holiday, in part because the Yankees already had a huge lead in the American League standings, with more than half the season still to play. New York would win 106 games that year and sweep the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. The larger reason that the attention of both fans and players was not focused on the scoreboard was because of the ceremony between the two contests. July 4, 1939 was Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium.

The notion of honoring a player in such fashion, and of retiring that athlete’s number as part of the tribute, was still very new. Just five years earlier the Toronto Maple Leafs were the first professional franchise to retire a number when winger Ace Bailey’s number 6 was taken out of circulation. While Gehrig’s number 4 was manifestly not the last number to be retired by the Yankees, on that Independence Day it became the first.

Quite apart from the tragedy of being struck down in his prime by a disease that would come to bear his name and for which eighty years later there is still no cure, the retirement of his number as well as Gehrig’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in a special vote of the Baseball Writers’ Association that December, were entirely deserved based on his accomplishments on the field. That is easy to forget when so much of Gehrig’s legacy is centered on the illness that ended his career. His is a record that is about much more than the 2,130 consecutive games played that stood unmatched until 1995. In seventeen big league seasons he batted .340, with 493 home runs and 1,995 runs batted in. His career on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of 1.080 ranks third in the history of the Great Game, behind only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Gehrig is eighteenth on the career WAR list, but he accumulated his 112.4 Wins Above Replacement total in fewer seasons than all but one of the players ahead of him.

So it was that between the two games, with the July sun beating down, retired players from the 1927 Murderer’s Row team along with active players on that season’s squad assembled in the infield with Gehrig, as gifts were presented and speeches made by manager Joe McCarthy, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and Postmaster General James Farley. Through much of it Gehrig stood alone with his head down, nearly overcome by the emotion of the moment. When at last the speeches were done, he waved to sportswriter Sid Mercer, who was emceeing the tribute, indicating that he could not bring himself to speak. Mercer responded by telling the crowd, “I will not ask him to speak. I do not believe that I should.”

But Yankee fans would have none of that, and a rhythmic chant of “We want Lou! We want Lou!” poured down from all three decks and washed across the green grass and brown dirt of the field, until at last the Iron Horse stepped to the microphone.

He began with the two sentences that are as much a part of baseball’s history as Bobby Thompson’s home run, Don Larsen’s perfect game, Pete Rose’s 4,192nd hit or Hank Aaron’s 715th round-tripper. “Fans, for the past two weeks you’ve been reading about a bad break,” Gehrig said, before adding after a pause, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Gehrig went on to explain himself, citing the “kindness and encouragement” of fans throughout his career, the opportunity to know Yankees’ owner Jacob Ruppert and the managers he played for as well as his teammates, “such fine looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today.” He thanked everyone associated with the Yankees, “down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats.” Then he expressed his good fortune at having his parents, mother-in-law, and wife to support him. Finally, he ended in the same vein as he began, “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”

Accounts of the day speak of a standing ovation that lasted more than two minutes, even as Gehrig, overcome with emotion, was embraced by the Babe. Less than eleven months later, Gehrig was gone.

Eighty years later, even with all its familiarity, the moment has lost none of its pathos. A ballplayer, his career inexplicably struck down, setting aside his misfortune to express a profound sense of appreciation for the opportunity to play the game. In a week in which another franchise not even imagined at the time of Gehrig’s speech is mourning another athlete dying young, it is worth remembering that Gehrig’s humble words apply to fans as well.

It is we in the stands after all, who have the right to boo when we feel like it, and complain about the price of a beer, and lament the extra base not taken and the intended curveball that instead hung over the middle of the plate when things are going badly for our heroes. So too it is we in the stands who can cheer the well-executed double play by our fielders, and the come from behind rally by our batters and the dominating repertoire of our hurlers that together form the collective work of a team marching toward the playoffs when things are going well. Most of all, whatever our favorite squad’s record, it is we in the stands who are allowed to escape the everyday cares of the world for a time when we turn our attention to a game. We too are the lucky ones.

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