Seventy-seven years ago this Monday, Lou Gehrig was coaxed into giving a speech before a crowd of 61,000 in the original Yankee Stadium. The man known as “the Iron Horse” did everything he could to avoid the spotlight, but it was unavoidable on this day. He was being honored with a ceremony between double-headers against the Washington Senators on the fourth of July in 1939.
The stadium echoed with chants of “We want Lou! We want Lou!” Everyone wanted to hear from the once powerful and now persevering Gehrig. The American hero had been diagnosed a month earlier with a progressive neurodegenerative disease known as ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), and it was aggressively attacking his brain and spinal cord.
Below is a video of the speech (arguably one of the greatest) courtesy of Major League Baseball. The best part of his infamous and impromptu address, in my opinion, is his final words. See if you agree.
Before being diagnosed with ALS, Gehrig had played in a record 2,130 consecutive games. A few months later he would hit his final home run (September 27, 1938) against Dutch Leonard of the Washington Senators in an empty stadium with a mere 2,700 or so in attendance. It landed in the right-field bleachers and was his 493rd.
My favorite biography on my favorite athlete was written by a senior special writer for The Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Eig. He writes in Luckiest Man:1
While everything else seemed to fall apart during the Depression, baseball carried on, led by some of the greatest heroes the game would ever see, providing welcome entertainment to a nation soaked in gloom.
The 1930s would be remembered for rising stars such as Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Dizzy Dean. But no one would play better baseball in the thirties than Lou Gehrig.
If Babe Ruth was the perfect hero for the glorious days of prosperity, Gehrig—durable, dependable, and dignified—was the man for hard times.
Gehrig would succumb to the disease, dying just two years after the speech. While we celebrate the adoption of the U.S. Declaration of Independence each year on the fourth of July, it is also a time—personally—in which I remember the stoic and superb first baseman from the New York Yankees, the man known as the Iron Horse.