Friday, July 4, 2014

Lou Gehrig's farewell speech

Today is July 4th -- a day of celebration throughout America. It also happens to be the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's farewell address at Yankee Stadium.  He died two years later of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now known simply as Lou Gehrig's disease. Few will remember his home run total (493) in this post-steroid era, but his 23 career grand slams and 500+ RBIs during a three year period are indicative of one thing:  the guy was clutch.

An article in today's Hartford Courant refers to Gehrig's speech as "one of the best-remembered of the 20th century," and "one of the most quoted of the 21st."   But this is only so because of the opening lines . . .

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 the earth.

 . . . and the closing:

I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.

It was a short speech, around 300 words, and the middle portion  -- including a reference to his mother-in-law -- consists of language more suited for a chat with friends in your living room.  Among the few names Gehrig mentions are Jacob Ruppert (who bought the Yankees in 1915) and Miller Huggins (Yankees manager 1918-29), important figures in Yankees history whose names have not stood the test of time.  Even the groundskeeper gets his due.  My guess is that Gehrig wrote the first and last lines, and his wife helped him with the rest.

His 2,130 consecutive game streak (broken over fifty years later by Cal Ripken, Jr.) was a big part of who he was, showing up to play every day.  Besides his brilliance on the field, his everyman quality was a big part of his popularity, never asking for the attention demanded by his teammate, Babe Ruth (who was openly critical of Gehrig's streak).

Before the Lou Gehrig story was made into a film, memorably played by Gary Cooper in "Pride of the Yankees" (1942), Eleanor Gehrig sent Samuel Goldwyn the text of the speech, in which she claimed " . . . Lou and I worked on the night before it was delivered, and naturally, my memory would not fail me in this instance."

If you want to listen to a recording of Gehrig's speech today, you will hear just the best parts of it. Gehrig adored his wife, and so he would naturally take her advice before such an awesome occasion.  His hesitancy to take the microphone given to him by the Yankee skipper, Joe McCarthy, speaks volumes. But Gehrig knew this:  when addressing thousands of his fans, he remembered to begin well and end well.

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