75 Years Ago

The Stacks: The Day Lou Gehrig Delivered Baseball’s Gettysburg Address

Two years before his death, an ailing Lou Gehrig stood in a packed Yankee Stadium and proclaimed himself ‘the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Ray Robinson was born in 1920 and during his childhood lived on the corner of 115th Street and Broadway across the street from Columbia University. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his father took him to watch the Columbia baseball team play, specifically to watch a young man named Lou Gehrig. Robinson was too young to remember anything specific about “Columbia Lou,” but he still recalls the idea of Gehrig, that he was someone important.

Robinson became a baseball fan and later attended Columbia himself. In fact, he graduated the day after Gehrig died, in 1941. Robinson became a writer and magazine editor and in 1990 he wrote a terrific book about his boyhood hero, The Iron Horse.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium, when Gehrig gave what Robinson calls, “Baseball's Gettysburg Address.” The critic Wilfrid Sheed once said that “all present in Yankee Stadium that day had been given a license to love a fellow human to the limit, without qualification, and to root for that person as they'd never rooted for themselves … If the Stadium had emptied out suddenly, and he had been left standing there alone, Gehrig would have felt no less lucky, because the appearance merely confirmed what he already knew, that he was having a very good day … A day like that was worth a thousand of the old ones.”

Please enjoy this telling of one of the finest moments in American sports history. Reprinted with the author's permission. -Alex Belth

Day after day, Lou sat on the Yankee bench, a perch that increasingly represented his security. Living vicariously through his teammates was better than being home, preoccupied each day with his eroding strength. One afternoon, with [Babe] Dahlgren near him in the dugout, a photographer asked Lou if he could take a photo of the two of them. Lou agreed, until the photographer suggested that Dahlgren pose in a fielding position at first base, with Lou cheering him on.

“I'm not cheering him,” said Lou, ruefully. “This is still my job!”

Always believing he could conquer his ailment, Lou had hopes, however slim, that others were writing him off too soon.

“I thought to myself,” said Dahlgren, “that here I'd been rooting for this guy all these years, and now he refuses to root for me. Then I realized his resentment was based on what an intensely competitive guy he always was. He just refused to give up, as sick as he felt.”

The players tried to kid Lou, suggesting he was “faking” it, or “jaking” it. They made a standing joke out of the fact that Lou really was on an extended vacation, getting all the free railroad trips and meals without ever having to pick up a bat on all those hot, muggy days.

Lou watched George Selkirk step into the batter's box for a few practice swings one afternoon.

“Hey, George, I want to see you hit one today,” said Lou.

“If you had any guts, Lou, you'd be the one hitting a couple, instead of me,” Selkirk yelled back.

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“I wish to God I could, George,” Lou responded.

Such exchanges were rare, for Lou went out of his way to keep things comfortable between himself and his buddies. He wanted to make his presence natural, not an imposition.

“I never realized,” Lou said one day, “how much I'd miss the clubhouse atmosphere and my roommate, Bill Dickey. I guess my life is bound up with baseball and this ball club.”

Lou continued to hope that his creeping paralysis could be halted. What kept him going was the belief that he had a fighting chance to beat the disease. Several years before Lou contracted ALS, Bruce Campbell, a Cleveland outfielder, came down with spinal meningitis. After missing parts of two seasons, Campbell returned to play full time and did well enough to bat over .300 each year. Gehrig was aware of Campbell's recovery and though the case was hardly the same as his, he took heart from Campbell's successful battle and tried desperately to relate it to his own struggle.

Though [his wife] Eleanor kept to her resolve never to tell Lou he was doomed, he gave out hints, from time to time, that he realized his chances for survival were slim. Once, when a small crowd of admirers gathered around him outside the stadium, he turned to a writer companion and whispered, “These people are yelling 'Good luck, Lou' and are wishing me well, and I'm dying.”

Dickey hadn't been informed that Lou was in a terminal stage of ALS. But even if he didn't understand all of the nuances of Lou's disability, he was convinced it was serious. He could observe Lou daily and was shocked at what he saw: things like Lou's legs suddenly buckling for no apparent reason or Lou having trouble bending down to tie his shoelaces, with fingers that shook alarmingly. Although Dickey rarely heard Lou complain, on one occasion, when the Yankee team stopped at a small town and some kids gathered around seeking autographs, Lou said to Bill: “These boys have a whole life to live—but I don't have long to go.”

Shortly after Lou's return from the Mayo Clinic, the Yankees, reacting to widespread sympathy for him, arranged a Gehrig Appreciation Day, to be held on July 4, when the Senators would be in New York for a doubleheader.

However, behind the scenes, [General Manager Ed] Barrow, a man who wasted little sentiment on players who had outlived their usefulness, chillingly informed Eleanor that “it was about time for Lou to get himself another job.” Having always assumed that Barrow (who lived near him in Larchmont) would reward his loyalty by providing him with a post in the organization, Lou couldn't believe it. Eleanor was even more bitter than her husband, refusing to forgive Barrow for his coldness. She regarded Barrow as a sanctimonious hypocrite and scoffed at his gesture to retire Lou's number 4 permanently. To her it was just empty window dressing that would do little practical good for Lou.

In preparing for Gehrig Day, some in the Yankee hierarchy speculated on the possible negative impact such a highly charged experience might have on Lou's physical and emotional well-being. McCarthy, in particular, was concerned it could further damage Lou's health.

Despite such reservations, when the event was held it evolved into one of baseball's most memorable episodes, though, indeed, it was agonizing for all of those present.

Many of Lou's tough old squadron from the Murderers' Row club of 1927 were there, including Lazzeri, Meusel, Fletcher, Combs (now a Yankee coach), Pennock, Koenig, Bengough, Dugan, Hoyt, and Pipgras, who was umpiring that afternoon. Wally Pipp and Everett Scott, who had played watershed roles in Lou's career were also on hand. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia stood next to Postmaster General Jim Farley, who had started out life in upstate New York wanting to be a ball player. Eleanor sat next to Mom and Pop Gehrig, for Lou's sickness had brought them all closer together. The Babe showed up, too, arriving late, as usual, and looking tanned as a lifeguard. Until this moment he hadn't exchanged a word with Lou for years.

With over sixty-two thousand fans sitting under blue skies to pay their respects, the ball games with the Senators were all but ignored. When the first game ended, the Yankee players of yesterday, graying at the temples and in their street clothes, joined the current crew in a loose circle around Lou near home plate.

They listened as McCarthy, barely able to control his emotions, assured Lou “it was a sad day in the life of everybody when you told me you were quitting because you felt you were a hindrance to the team … My God, man, you were never that!”

When McCarthy finished, Sid Mercer, a veteran sportswriter serving as master of ceremonies, presented Lou with gifts from his fellow players, from the writers, from the club's employees, from the Harry M. Stevens concessionaires—even some from the enemy New York Giants. Then he leaned over to catch what Lou, his face twitching and jaws contracting, was saying to him. Mercer stepped to the microphone and relayed the message.

“Lou has asked me to thank all of you. He is too moved to speak,” Mercer said.

At that moment the chant “We want Gehrig, we want Gehrig” started to rumble from every corner of the big ballpark. The fans who had come to pay their respects wanted to hear from their hero.

As he listened to the beseeching chorus, Lou drew a handkerchief from his pocket, blew his nose, wiped his eyes, and advanced unsteadily to the microphone. (McCarthy, fearful that Lou might fall, had whispered to Dahlgren, “Catch him if he starts to go down.”) His cap in hand, Lou briefly scanned the packed stands, now silent as if on cue. Then he began to speak:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today l consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and I 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 father and 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 had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

With the conclusion of Lou's words, the crowd let out a deafening roar. The Babe walked over to the stooped figure at the microphone and threw his arms around Lou's neck. The embrace was frozen in time by photographers.

Lou's valedictory has been acclaimed, without sarcasm, as baseball's Gettysburg Address. It's remarkable, too, that during his delivery, Lou showed no significant signs of slurred speech, often so characteristic of ALS.

The words had been written down by Lou, as he worked on the speech the night before. But when it came time to deliver them, he spoke from memory. “He was groping for some way to phrase the emotions that usually were kept securely locked up,” said Eleanor. If the reaction to his simple, honest words by those who listened in over the radio or later read the lines in the newspapers was any indication, Lou had succeeded more than he could have imagined. Lou’s few sentences were certainly the most memorable he’d ever uttered, for he was a man who, by common consent, didn’t speak often or loudly.