MLB History: Lou Gehrig; The Luckiest Man in the World

Written by Bobby Mette, Join us on Twitter- @kjackmansports or Facebook.com/jackmansports

The “Iron Horse” is someone who gives it their all day in and day out. The” Iron Horse” never stops until he is unable to go any further. The” Iron Horse” is a man who does what he does for the people around him that make life possible. That man is Lou Gehrig. A man of class, power, and fame, Lou Gehrig won the hearts of Americans while playing baseball with the New York Yankees. Hitting cleanup behind arguably the greatest player who ever lived, Babe Ruth, Gehrig was sometimes shadowed by “the Great Bambino’s” unbelievable strength on the field. They had many quarrels while playing together, but the two of them would join forces on the greatest team that ever played the game, the 1927 New York Yankees. Gehrig’s accomplishments on the field can be mentioned over and over, but what really stands out is the type of character he showed. Gehrig is most well known for the disease he encountered during his playing days, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. He had to retire from the game he loved because of the effects of the rare disease. The farewell to baseball address he gave at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 will be remembered forever. This speech was very successful because he gained the attention and emotions of his audience. He also helped solidify baseball as America’s Pastime while showing his appreciation for the people around him. Being able to give a speech as he did, knowing that his life would end shortly, takes a lot of courage. He illustrated that he played the game for the love of it, not for personal benefits. He reached out to the fans, something that is overlooked in the game today.

 Lou Gehrig was born in New York City on June 19, 1903 to German immigrants. His family was poor so he helped out with whatever he could. He gained a strong work ethic from the get go. Gehrig was a football and baseball star in high school. A highlight of his baseball career included when he visited Wrigley Field for a high school championship game and hit a ball out of the park at 16 years of age. He enrolled at Columbia University in 1921, but was unable to join the football and baseball teams at first since he played 12 professional baseball games with a minor league team under a different name. Once able to participate, he excelled playing defensive tackle and fullback on the football squad, while pitching and playing first base and outfield on the diamond. A New York Yankees scout named Paul Krichell noticed the kid’s talent and signed him to a deal. In mentioning what he observed when scouting Gehrig, he says, “I saw a tremendous youth, with powerful arms and terrific legs… here is a kid who can’t miss.” He spent the majority of his first two years in the minors while being called up later in each season. He began the 1925 season with the Yankees. He pinch-hit on June 1, and never missed a game after that for the rest of his career. At the time he had broken the record of consecutive games played and ended with 2,130 games 15 seasons later. Cal Ripken Jr. would break it over 55 years later. The first baseman’s ability to play every day with the intensity he brought earned him the nickname, “Iron Horse.” When writing about Gehrig in the” New York Times,” John Kieran wrote, “His greatest record doesn’t show in the book. It was the absolute reliability of Henry Louis Gehrig. He could be counted upon. He was there every day at the ballpark bending his back and ready to break his neck to win for his side. He was there day after day and year after year. He never sulked or whined or went into a pot or a huff. He was the answer to a manager’s dream.” There were not many people in the country who didn’t know of Lou Gehrig was, and there were even fewer who thought he was just like the rest of the major leaguers.

                Here is a brief look at the unbelievable statistics Gehrig put up on the field. He won the Most Valuable Player award twice, one in 1927 and the other in 1936. The All-Star game was created in 1933, and Gehrig made the team every year he was in the league while it was established from 1933 and on, a total of seven times. He quite possibly could have had one of the most remarkable seasons ever when he won the Triple Crown in 1934. Gehrig hit .363 with 49 home runs and drove in 165 runs. He hit 493 career home runs, a total that could have been much higher had his life not ended shortly. He became the first American Leaguer to hit four home runs in a single game back in 1932. His career batting average of .340 and slugging percentage of .632 ranks him as one of the all-time greats. He led the league in many different categories many times. Often, an outstanding player at the plate gets overlooked in the field, but Gehrig boasted a .991 career fielding percentage. He was also a clutch performer when the playoffs rolled along, helping the Yankees win six World Series titles. Gehrig was a role model in the clubhouse, earning the respect of his teammates and fans. He was given the famed New York Yankee “captain” title in 1934 showing the love everyone had for him. The whole Babe Ruth- Lou Gehrig fiasco that these two had can still be seen amongst teammates in sports today. Two superstars playing on the same team sometimes does not end up in the best way possible. They had their negative emotions towards one another, but they did not let it get in the way of their play on the field. Gehrig was once quoted saying, “The Babe is one fellow, and I’m another and I could never be exactly like him. I don’t try, just go on as I am in my own right.”  As mentioned earlier, Gehrig excelled on the field, but this is not what he is remembered for the most.

                April 30, 1939 was the last game Americans would see their hero put on the famous pinstripes. Gehrig had manager Joe McCarthy remove him from the lineup and had himself checked up on at a medical center. Within a week he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This is a progressive neuromuscular condition that affects the muscles and causes weakness in the body. There are about 30,000 Americans who have the disease, and the occurrence of it is extremely rare. The disease is incurable as most people lose the battle within five years of being diagnosed. Shortly after he was told the news, the Yankees scheduled a “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” on July 4, 1939. This is when he delivered his famous speech before a crowd of 61,808 fans at Yankees Stadium. The way he moved the crowd and spoke with such passion made this speech so great. At the time, there was a rule that players had to wait one full year after retirement before being inducted into the Hall of Fame. This rule was eliminated right away, and Lou Gehrig was inducted immediately. As the next couple of years slowly went by, Gehrig’s health began deteriorating. He was soon unable to walk and eventually died in June of 1941 at the age of 37. A monument was placed in center field in honor of him along with his number four being retired. Gehrig would be and still is honored every day for his efforts on and off of the field. The Lou Gehrig award is given each year to the player in the major leagues who best illustrates the characteristics that Henry Louis Gehrig portrayed. The speech he gave on that summer day solidified Lou Gehrig as a baseball legend.

                “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” This is what Lou opened up with in front of the Yankee faithful. The word that sticks out in this line is “fans.” He went out there each and every day for the people sitting in the stands. He gave it his all on every play for them. His speech greatly showed his appreciation for his followers. He sets the stage here by bringing joy to his fans at such a hard time. He knew that this would be just as rough for the fans as it would be for him. Saying goodbye to baseball would mean more than no longer hitting home runs at Yankee Stadium or hitting behind Babe Ruth. He was saying goodbye to his fans, the people that had enjoyed watching him play, that had supported him since his debut. To be able to talk with such confidence and positivity made the speech effective. He did what he could to make the best out of the situation. He wanted his fans to know that deep down he really did believe he was the luckiest man in the world. Lou goes on to explain how much his fans meant to him talking directly to them. This opening line was a great way to start the speech, and it really gained peoples’ attention for the rest of what he had to say.

                A little later he asks the crowd, “Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them (fans) for even one day? Sure I’m lucky.” This line previews what he will be addressing throughout his speech.  In Richard Greene’s book “Words that Shook the World,” Greene explains that when Gehrig refers to himself being lucky it is “much like a brilliantly composed piece of classical music.” Next comes when he mentions Jacob Rupert, the owner of the Yankees, Ed Barrow, the Yankees’ general manager, and Miller Huggins, the previous manager of the Yankees. Again, he wants to put everyone in his shoes to understand what he has been through during his life. He wants people to know that he was grateful for the people around him that made his experiences so great. He then honors Joe McCarthy, the guy who managed most of the Yankees teams Gehrig played for. Adding onto the previous trio, this man meant a lot to Lou and he wanted him to know it. What not a better place than to put the line, “Sure I’m lucky.” He says it again here to reestablish what his main point is: courageously stating that he has lived life to its fullest and has appreciated the support he has received from his fans and family.

                Next, he mentions the New York Giants, the cross-town rivals, and how he appreciates the sympathy they had shown for him. He continues one of his themes here about trying to thank as many people as possible. By recognizing his opponents, Lou makes it known that his speech truly is meant for everyone, not just the baseball folk. After that, he lists a few more groups of people. The groundskeepers get a compliment as well as children across America. This signifies his image as a role model. Reaching out to the kids made many people love the man even more. Fans all over the country enjoyed watching number four play, but the kids are the ones who dream of being Lou Gehrig someday. They look up to him, and want to act just as he does. He understands this and gives a compliment to “those boys in white coats.”

His mother-in-law receives a mention next when he even gives a short example of his relationship with her. As mentioned over and over again, he reaches out to everyone. He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him that he is dying. That is the worst thing he believes could have happened. He wants people to understand that what he was saying on that day was truthful. He felt truly blessed and lucky to have the privileges that he had. His parents come next. His family was poor so he recognizes the hard work that they put in while he was growing up so that he could enjoy life to its fullest. He would not have been there if it weren’t for Heinrich Gehrig and Christina Fack, the two people he is most grateful for. The last person that gets a tribute in his memorable speech is his wife, Eleanor. He says that she “has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed.” The news of the “Iron Horse’s” incurable disease might have been the hardest on Eleanor. Lou wanted her to know that everything would be all right. This was the message he sent here by saving her for last. All of the people Gehrig mentioned in his speech came from many different areas. The fact that he spent the majority of his speech talking about the importance of many different groups of people sent out a strong message. The day was supposed to be for him, but he turned that around and made it for everyone else. 

                The last line of Lou Gehrig’s farewell address to baseball goes like this, “So I close in saying that I may have been given a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.” This was such a captivating way to end.  He takes a tough situation and makes it as optimistic as possible. This line sounds like he wants his fans to know that he will always be playing the game of baseball for them to watch. No matter what happens, he will always keep them in their hearts, and will always keep a positive mind, much like he had done throughout his time with the New York Yankees. Just because he got a “bad break” doesn’t mean he has to change his beliefs. He will still be the best person that he can be. Greene explains this final statement by saying that “the last paragraph is the speech-making equivalent of a three-pitch strikeout to end the game.” Just like the end of a baseball game, the stands erupted in applause, which could not have been a better way to say goodbye to Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Horse.”

                This speech was so significant because it showed a direct correlation between an iconic baseball player and his fans. Lou Gehrig was a very hard worker, playing every day as tough as he could. Baseball is America’s Pastime and this speech was a key event that strengthened America’s love for the game. Baseball had produced many players that have such great character, and Lou Gehrig was one of them. This speech exemplified that anyone, man or woman, kid or adult, could enjoy a day at the ballpark. At the time, the country was still recovering from the Great depression, and Gehrig brought hope to peoples’ lives. Lou Gehrig spoke from his heart and reached out to everyone that impacted his life because he wanted to, not because he was told to.

                Baseball as we know it is not what it used to be. The game has changed greatly since it was created in the late 1800s. It has recently gone through its darkest age, the Steroid Era. Football has taken over as the number one most watched sport in America. Much of this is due to the types of players that are in the game now. Baseball has become corrupt since players play for money and the fame. People want to make money in any way possible. Sometimes players will play in a city their entire lives, and when their contract is up, they will move to a different team because they will make more money. That did not happen before in baseball. Again, the game has changed, and that is one thing that has changed for the worse. Players leave their fans that have grown to love them for so long a time. Lou Gehrig played his entire career in New York, and he would have continued to play there had he not had a sudden diagnosis of ALS. The speech that Gehrig gave on July 4, 1939 will be remembered forever, not because it was his final goodbye to the baseball world, but because he thanked everyone around him for such a wonderful life. He was a phenomenal athlete, a great teammate, a coach’s dream, but most importantly, he was the epitome of a true American.  He played for the passion, for the joy of putting on the pinstripes, and lastly for the fans, just like a true “Iron Horse.”

 

 

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