The story itself is known to even the casual baseball fan: one of the game’s best ballplayers who had played more games in a row than anyone else, ever, got sick with a fatal disease that forced him to retire from the game he loved. When he retired he gave an eloquent, moving speech. Soon thereafter people started referring to the disease he had by his name: Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
It was 80 years ago today—July 4, 1939—that Gehrig gave that speech in front of a sellout crowd of 61,000 at Yankee Stadium. The speech itself has become the stuff of legend, even though no complete recording, on film or audio, remains. While many people believe they have seen or heard a complete version, they are in fact thinking of the fictionalized version from the film The Pride of the Yankees, which while similar in tone to the original had been shortened, simplified, and moved some phrases from the beginning to the end.
Gehrig’s speech has been called baseball’s Gettysburg Address, and the comparison seems apt. For starters, Lincoln’s address ran just 272 words, and Gehrig’s impromptu remarks (by all accounts he had not prepared anything in advance and did not plan to address the crowd at all) ended up being just four words more. Both speeches also have a simple, genuine humanity that is perhaps more noticeable because of their brevity.
“Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”Lou Gehrig, July 4, 1939
The most famous part of the speech is actually its second sentence. “Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break,” Gehrig began. “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He would go on to express his gratitude for the life he had the opportunity to live, thanking everyone from team owners, to groundskeepers, to his in-laws. “Sure, I’m lucky,” Gehrig noted about halfway through.
He finished by saying “(s)o I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.” The crowd stood and cheered for two minutes. Gehrig was visibly shaken as he stepped away from the microphones, and with a handkerchief wiped tears away from his face. The New York Times report from the following day called it “one of the most touching scenes ever witnessed on a ball field.”
The “bad break” Gehrig referred to was of course his ALS diagnosis. Gehrig had noted how tired he was during the second half of the 1938 season. “I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t get going again,” he said at the time. When he reported to spring training in 1939, his yet undiagnosed ALS had further weakened his muscles to the point where it was noticeable to everyone. However, Gehrig was in the midst of the longest consecutive games played streak in the history of baseball, and remained in the starting lineup for the first month of the 1939 season.
But he hit just .143 over that first month, shockingly below his career average of .340. And his once legendary power was gone: he had just one RBI and no home runs through April 30. After an off day on May 1, Gehrig approached his manager Joe McCarthy before the game May 2 in Detroit and said simply, “I’m benching myself, Joe.” He had appeared in 2,130 consecutive games, but would not appear in another.
He arrived at the Mayo Clinic on June 13, and after six days of extensive testing, doctors confirmed the diagnosis of ALS on June 19, 1939, which was Gehrig’s 36th birthday. Almost exactly two weeks later, he would appear in his Yankee’s uniform for the last time on that July 4 for “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” at Yankee Stadium, and gave his speech at a ceremony between games of a doubleheader. His uniform number 4 was retired, making him the first player in Major League Baseball history to be accorded that honor. During the ceremony his was given many plaques, awards and trophies, although his ALS had so weakened him that he was nervous he would drop them when they were presented to him. He held each only briefly before placing them on the ground.
Gehrig would live less than two years after that afternoon, passing away at his home in the Bronx on June 2, 1941, by coincidence 16 years to the day from when Gehrig had replaced Wally Pipp at 1st base for the Yankees, beginning his streak of 2,130 consecutive games played.
The New York Times first referred to “Gehrig disease” in a March 1940 article. TIME magazine would use the headline “Gehrig’s Disease” later that same month in a story reporting on his condition and treatments. Slowly over time, Lou Gehrig’s Disease and ALS would become synonymous throughout the U.S.
Eighty years is a long time by human standards. And since July 4, 1939, much has happened. Yankee Stadium has been torn down and rebuilt, although the plaque honoring Lou Gehrig remains. And in those 80 years thousands upon thousands of people have had to face the “bad break” of ALS. Just five years ago, very near to the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s speech, the Ice Bucket Challenge shown a light on ALS—and the search for a cure—in a way that may not have been seen since Gehrig was diagnosed. Once again creating national interest in the research into the cause of ALS, and the quest for new treatments and a cure. Now, however, the scientific technology exists to provide real hope that someday when remembering Lou Gehrig we may talk about the “once fatal” disease that bore his name. This July 4th, we ask everyone to say “Challenge Me” to ending Lou Gehrig’s Disease forever.