Tuesday, August 11th, 2020

July 4, 1939 — Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” Speech

“I saw strong men weep this afternoon, expressionless umpires swallow hard, and emotion pump the hearts and glaze the eyes of 61,000 fans in Yankee Stadium.  Yes, and hard-boiled news photographers clicked their shutter with fingers that trembled a bit.”  So went Shirley Povich’s powerful and poignant lead to his Washington Post newspaper column.

On July 4, 1939, between games of a doubleheader with the Washington Senators, the Yankees held a Lou Gehrig appreciation day. Gehrig was removing himself from the Yankees’ active roster.  Many dignitaries, such as New York Mayor Fiorella La Guardia, were on hand as were Gehrig’s teammates from the famous 1927 “Murderers Row” team–Ruth, Meusel, Pennock, Lazzeri, Hoyt, Koenig, and others. 

Pictures above and below from gallery of Graig Kreindler

Povich went on to write, “It was Lou Gehrig Day at the stadium, and the first 100 years of baseball saw nothing quite like it.  It was Lou Gehrig, tributes, honors, gifts heaped upon him, getting an overabundance of the thing he wanted least–sympathy.  But it wasn’t maudlin.  His friends were just letting their hair down in their earnestness to pay him honor.  And they stopped just short of a good, mass cry.”

Several of the attendees, including, Ruth and manager Joe McCarthy stepped to the microphone and praised Gehrig. Mayor La Guardia calling Gehrig “the perfect prototype of the best to be found in sportsmanship and citzenship.”

In keeping with his personality, Gehrig dreaded the fuss being made over him and appeared fidgety during the ceremony.  He pawed at the dirt during the fete and used his handkerchief to wipe away tears.  The crowd wanted Lou to speak yet he initially refused.  Ed Barrow, Yankee president, told Gehrig “Knock out one more hit, you’re up Lou”  Finally, McCarthy spoke to Gehrig and convinced him to address his adoring fans.  

Eventually, Lou stepped to microphone amidst total silence save the sniffling sounds of grown men ….

Gehrig Biography:  Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig

Of all the Lou Gehrig biographies, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, by Jonathan Eig is the most celebrated.  Eig has also penned biographies on  Jackie Robinson and, more recently, Al Capone

Read below what some baseball  luminaries have written about Luckiest Man:

With splendid results, Jonathan Eig separates fact from fantasy in his stirring portrait of an athlete dying young.  The Lou Gehrig he presents is more subtle, nuanced, and indeed more neurotic than the stiff, cardboard figure we previously knew.  all of which makes Gehrig’s tragic final struggle more moving and profound.  A wonderful book.”  Roger Kahn.

“As my consecutive games streak grew, my curiosity about Lou Gehrig also grew and I wanted to learn more about him and what kind of person he was. Jonathan Eig’s book, Luckiest Man, really helped me put all of the pieces together and gain a solid understanding of Lou, both on and off the field.  I thought it was a wonderful book that provided insights about lou, his amazing life and outstanding career.”  Cal Ripken.

“Luckiest Man is the most interesting treatment of a diamond personality I have ever read.  Eig’s scholarship, minute detail, and balance combine to give a human insight into the heroic life story of the doomed Yankee slugger.” Ernie Harwell.

In 2005, Eig’s Luckiest Man won the prestigious Casey Award  given by Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine to honor the authors and publishers of the best baseball book of the year.

Read the New York Times Review of Luckiest Man

Witnesses to History

Ellsworth “Babe” Dahlgren was the player who finally replaced Lou Gehrig in the Yankee’s lineup thus ending the Iron Horse’s consecutive game streak.  Dahlgren was present during Gehrig’s farewell speech.  Dahlgren’s grandson, Matt, recounted his grandfather’s memories in a recently published book, Rumor in Town,

On that day, July 4, 1939, you’ll notice in all of the photos that Babe Dahlgren, my grandfather, is standing on the third base foul line. He was the closest to Lou.

McCarthy went up to Babe before the ceremonies and instructed him to “not let Lou fall.” The thought of having to catch Lou in front of close to 70,000 people was daunting for Babe to say the least. As Babe watched Gehrig speak, he couldn’t help notice that his lower half (legs &buttocks) was trembling. The ball players had been reading reports where Gehrig was quoted saying he’d be back etc. But there wasn’t any doubt in Babe’s mind as he watched his boyhood idol that not only would he not be back, but that he was dying right before his eyes. Babe was relieved when the speech was over; relieved that he didn’t have to “catch” Lou.

Babe told me a lot of stories about Gehrig throughout the years. But whenever he talked about July 4, 1939 he’d get emotional. His voice would quiver and he’d fight back tears. It stayed with him forever. 

Washington Senators’ outfielder George Case Jr., who led the league in stolen bases five consecutive years and was believed to be the fastest man in baseball had many conversations with his son George Case III about Lou Gehrig.  George Case Jr. was on hand for Gehrig’s last game.  His videography of baseball during the World War II era can be found at http://www.timelessbaseball.com/   Below are the recollections of Case III about his father and Gehrig.

“…my dad told me on several occasions that all of the players on both teams had tears in their eyes as everyone had the greatest respect for Lou Gehrig as a person and, of course, as a ballplayer. At the time, no one really knew of the severity of the disease that would take Lou’s life only two years from that day – ALS was really unknown then and only later would come to be known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”

I can remember my mother seeing clips of the speech after my dad passed away in 1989 – it always made her sad to see Lou, obviously, but happy to see my dad as a young man in 1939

Postscript – with regard to Gehrig’s last game, I was told by a SABR researcher that my father caught the last ball ever hit in the major leagues by Lou – I never knew that and I’m not certain my dad ever knew that because he never mentioned it to me – my dad did mention his “Lou Gehrig” scar – apparently in 1938, the Yankees tried to pick my dad off of first base – the throw was high and Lou came down on my dad’s leg with his spikes – the “Lou Gehrig” scar was the result

Full Text of Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” Speech

(Though there were many microphones at the game, only four sentences of the speech survived on tape.  The full text was pieced together from numerous newspaper accounts)

“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 this 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 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 have an awful lot to live for.”
.

 Sources:

  • Lou Gehrig: The Iron Horse of Baseballby Richard G. Hubler 1941 pp. 185-197
  • All Those Mornings at the Postby Shirley Povich 2005 pp. 67-70
  • Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig  2005 pp. 310-319
  • Rumor in Town: A Grandson’s Promise to Right a Wrongby Matt Dahlgren, 2007 pp. 88-93
  • Ken Burns’ Baseball, 5th inning 1930 to 1940

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