By July 4, 1939, the Yankees were playing as if they did not miss the ailing Lou Gehrig. They had rolled to a 51-16 record and were 12 1/2-games ahead of the Boston Red Sox. Joe DiMaggio, at 24 the superstar of these Bronx Bombers, was hitting .426. Catcher Bill Dickey, Gehrig’s close friend and former roommate had 11 home runs and a .346 batting average. Second baseman Joe Gordon was at .325.
Gehrig had removed himself from the Yankee lineup before a game in early May in Detroit. His awful start—a .143 average, no home runs and one run batted in—was a continuation of his weak spring training when Gayle Talbot, a reporter for the Associated Press, wrote that Gehrig “has slowed up dreadfully and has been brooding for a month over his inability to hit.”
Gehrig was stung by the criticism and sent a message through his friend John Kieran, a columnist for The New York Times, that he wasn’t finished. “Lou’s request is for the volunteer pallbearers to stand away from the Iron Horse’s head,” Kieran wrote. “He thinks he can pull his own weight and maybe a little bit more.”
He was wrong.
Testing at the Mayo Clinic revealed in June the reason behind Gehrig’s deteriorating strength and skills: He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease that would soon take his name.
He never played another major league game.
So on the Fourth of July, the Yankees staged Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, where Lou would take a final star turn between games of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium. The event was designed to pay tribute to him with gifts and speeches. But there was no expectation that he would address the crowd. If he chose to speak, what would this reserved man say?
What could he say?
Players retired all the time, becoming coaches, managers, bartenders, truck drivers, and salesmen. But this was a nearly unique circumstance.
Gehrig was retiring because of a devastating disease, yet he clung to the hope that he would not become an invalid. “I may need a cane in ten or fifteen years,” he wrote to his wife Eleanor after receiving the diagnosis.
He was nervous on the day he was honored. He sat on the bench during the first game—a 3-2 loss to the sixth-place Senators—and according to the New York Herald Tribune, told Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, “I’d give a month’s pay to get out of this. It’s swell, and all that; but gosh, I wish I were far, far away.”
With Game 1 over, the Seventh Regiment Band ushered Gehrig’s teammates from the 1927 team onto the field including Babe Ruth, looking like he was headed a Hamptons garden party in a cream-colored suit; Bob Meusel, Waite Hoyt, Tony Lazzeri, Mark Koenig, and others. The old timers—described in the New York Times as “elderly”—took their places near home plate, with New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Postmaster General James Farley. Lou’s 1939 teammates stood along the third-base line. The Senators were arrayed on the first base line.
Lou departed the dugout with help from Ed Barrow, the Yankees’ president and dynasty-builder. They walked together toward home plate but Barrow steadied Gehrig’s wavering body by holding his left arm with both his hands.
Lou couldn’t have looked more lonely.
His uniform was now too big for his body—the pants billowed on him—emphasizing the physical toll that ALS had already taken on his once-muscular physique. When well-wishers shook his hand, they stepped toward his isolated form, then stepped back, leaving him alone again, a man at his baseball funeral.
McCarthy was so worried about his former first baseman’s unsteadiness that he told Babe Dahlgren, his successor, “If Lou starts to fall, catch him.”
One gift after another was laid at his feet. LaGuardia, Farley, and McCarthy spoke. Only Gehrig remained. Would he speak? He had arrived that day in the Bronx with something to say if not the absolute will to say it. His wife, Eleanor, gave various accounts of the speech’s provenance: that they had worked on it together or that Lou was its sole author. Or that Lou rehearsed it, or that he didn’t.
Gehrig walked onto the field without a text to read from. If he was going to speak, he was going to wing it. Had he left the speech at home or in his locker?
It is questionable that a full speech had actually been written. During the making of The Pride of the Yankees, the Gehrig biopic in 1942, Eleanor wrote to producer Samuel Goldwyn that she had reproduced the speech “from memory” so that Gary Cooper, who portrayed Gehrig, could recite it precisely as Lou had.
Knowing what he might say is, of course, different than saying it. He was overwhelmed by emotion. He waved off the emcee, Sid Mercer, who told the crowd that Lou would not speak. “He gulped and fought to keep back the tears as he kept his eyes fastened on the ground,” the Times reported.
But fans were chanting “We want Lou!” Eleanor, sitting in a box seat, trembled as she listened to the crowd cajole her husband to speak.
Finally, McCarthy came to Gehrig’s side, said something quietly to him, and gently led him to the radio and newsreel microphones.
What Gehrig said, word for word, is lost. No full newsreel account exists. But his opening lines have survived and they, alone, make the speech memorable.
“For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break.
Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
He thanked his teammates, his Yankee managers, his parents, his mother-in-law, his wife, the groundskeepers, and the rival New York Giants in a thick New York accent that was probably unfamiliar to many fans. In fewer than 300 words, he transformed himself from a magnificent ballplayer into a heroic figure who somehow found enormous gratitude in his limited future. He had finally—and fully—left the outsize shadow of Ruth, who embraced Gehrig on the field (as the band played “I Love You Truly”).
A few months later, Gehrig explained in a syndicated article that he had been thankful for his achievements since childhood—and used that theme in his speech. “This summer I got a bad break,” he added. “The doctors said I couldn’t play baseball any more. All right, I’m still the luckiest man on earth when you add things up. I’ve got a long season of life to play out and my team—America—is absolutely the best in the league. That’s what counts.”
Gehrig lived less than two years after delivering the speech—a moment memorialized for the past 75 years in Gary Cooper’s rendition of the speech in The Pride of the Yankees. But Cooper’s version, enacted on a sound stage at Goldwyn’s studio, was not the only time he delivered the speech. When he was on a USO tour in the South Pacific in late 1943, a soldier asked him at one stop to recite the speech. Then, Cooper recalled, “The boys began to shout in unison for the farewell speech.” After taking some time to write down its lines, he took the stage and delivered it to a silent, appreciative audience.
He would deliver it at every subsequent stop on the tour.
Richard Sandomir is the author of The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic, which has just been published by Hachette Books.