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Yankees Fourth of July memories: Lou Gehrig’s ‘Luckiest Man’ Speech

On July 4, 1939, a sellout crowd watched the Yankees play two baseball games against the Washington Senators. Yes, it was a holiday and the stands would have been packed regardless, but the 61,808 people who went to Yankee Stadium that day attended because it was Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.

Podcast – A Brief History: Lou Gehrig’s ‘Luckiest Man’ Speech

You can listen to the full history podcast about Lou Gehrig’s ‘Luckiest Man’ speech and the ceremony in his honor.

Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day

After Gehrig’s abrupt retirement and the news of his illness became public, reporters started to suggest the team or league should do something to honor The Iron Horse. The league considered a ceremony at the All-Star Game, but Yankees’ team president Ed Barrow did not want Gehrig overshadowed by the Mid-Summer Classic. The team chose intermission of the upcoming July 4th doubleheader.

Gehrig was honored on the infield diamond for over 40-minutes. It was the first ceremony of its kind in baseball. Lou’s number 4 was retired — also the first time a uniform number had been retired. Technically, Gehrig’s number wasn’t officially retired by the Yankees until January 6, 1940, when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, but July 4, 1939 is also a date commonly cited for his number retirement.

Prominent people like New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Postmaster General James A. Farley attended.

Wally Pipp, who Gehrig replaced in the everyday Yankees lineup, and his teammates from the 1927 Murderers’ Row Yankees were there. Manager Joe McCarthy and Babe Ruth were among the few who gave a speech.

Lou stood there in full uniform listening to the speeches with his hat in his hand. They talked about his consecutive games streak, how he was a clutch player, a great leader and teammate. Lou bowed his head and shook hands in appreciation. As described in the biography Luckiest Man:

Gehrig looked as if he couldn’t wait to get it over with. He removed a big white handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his tears. He shifted his weight from left to right and stared at the ground.

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Gehrig was apprehensive about attending the ceremony. He was shy and reserved — a lead-by-example type of guy. Lou didn’t want his peers and the fans to see him in his weakened state. People who knew him said he aged years in just the two weeks since they last saw him traveling with the team. He lost weight and his motor functions had started to diminish.

He received many gifts: a silver service set from the Yankees front office, a fruit bowl and candlesticks from the New York Giants, silver pitchers and platters, a fishing rod and tackle, rings, a tobacco stand and a scroll.

His most cherished gift — the only one he carried with him off the field — was given to him by his teammates. It was a silver trophy engraved with all the names of the current Yankees and a poem, written by sports columnist John Kieran. It said:

We’ve been to the wars together;
We took our foes as they came:
And always you were the leader,
And ever you played the game.

Idol of cheering millions:
Records are yours by sheaves:
Iron of frame they hailed you,
Decked you with laurel leaves.

But higher than that we hold you,
We who have known you best;
Knowing the way you came through
Every human test.

Let this be a silent token
Of lasting friendship’s gleam
And all that we’ve left unspoken.
Your Pals of the Yankee Team.

Bill Dickey orchestrated the gift but Kieran was the perfect media member to write the poem because he and Lou were neighbors and friends.

Lou was grateful but did not want to make a speech. When the emcee told the crowd that Gehrig appreciated their support but asked not to speak, they started chanting We want Lou! We want Lou!

Then Joe McCarthy said something to Gehrig that changed his mind. McCarthy ushered him to the microphones where Lou paused for a minute, thinking about what he wanted to say. He took a deep breath and then gave Baseball’s Gettysburg Address.

Baseball’s Gettysburg Address

Gehrig’s speech was about 275 words in total, but only a few sentences have been preserved on video. You know how it starts…

The italicized parts are what was not on video.

For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break.

In the first line, Gehrig meant to say “break” but the word came out “brag” because he was so choked-up he couldn’t finish the sentence. He stopped to collect himself, then continued…

Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such a fine looking men as they’re standing in uniform in this ballpark today?

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 sayingthat I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

There was not a dry eye in the house. It was an amazing speech — and not just because of the circumstances. It was a speech about appreciating life. About being grateful for what you have. Gehrig wasn’t asking for sympathy or prayers. He simply stated what his family, the fans, the ceremony and baseball meant to him.

Gehrig’s life was baseball. As a young kid he played in the streets of Manhattan. He played as a college athlete at Columbia University. As a pro he played in baseball’s cathedral, Yankee Stadium. He made his major league debut at the age of 19. He won his first MVP award at the age of 24. By age 30 he had amassed over 300 home runs. By the time he was 35 he won six World Series.

Gehrig’s departure from baseball and from this world happened so quickly. On April 30, 1939, Gehrig went hitless against the Senators in the 2,130th consecutive game he played. Before their next game on May 2, Gehrig benched himself. He told McCarthy it was for the good of the team — Gehrig had been hitting just .143 that season as his illness began to break-down his body.

When McCarthy spoke at the ceremony, he said:

Lou, what can I say except that it was a sad day in the life of everybody who knew you when you came to my hotel room that day in Detroit and told me you were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God, man, you were never that.

Gehrig remained with the team as captain but never appeared in a game after April 30. In early June while on a road trip in Chicago, he visited the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. After extensive tests he was diagnosed with ALS on June 19, 1939 — his 36th birthday.

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After his public goodbye on July 4, the Hall of Fame inducted Gehrig by special election “to commemorate the year in which he achieved his record.” The writers felt he needed to be enshrined while he was alive.

Gehrig passed away less than 2-years after his famous speech. The Yankees honored their captain with a monument in centerfield that year, in 1941.