Lou Gehrig: One of the Greatest Men to Ever Play the Game

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Lou Gehrig: One of the Greatest Men to Ever Play the Game
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
It was 70 years ago today that Lou Gehrig uttered his famous speech that some argue is the greatest moment in Major League Baseball history. 
Before the speech and before the disease that would ultimately take his life, there was a man that accomplished so much in the classiest of ways.

Gehrig attended Columbia University after his mother insisted he maintain his education and go to a school that reflected it.  There, he received a full ride scholarship…to play football. 

After New York Giants manager John McGraw advised him to play summer professional baseball under an alias, Gehrig was discovered after just a few games and was banned from his freshman year of football.

The next year, Gehrig played fullback for the team and was an outstanding player that fall.  Following the football season, Gehrig joined the Columbia baseball team where he pitched and played first base. 

As a pitcher, Gehrig dominated on the hill, striking out 17 batters in one game while smacking home runs that some said were the farthest they had ever seen.

Luckily for Gehrig (and the Yankees), he was being followed very closely by a scout for the Yankees that year. 

Paul Kruchell, the man responsible for finding Gehrig, was so impressed by his left-handed hitting that he offered Gehrig a contract with a $1,500 signing bonus. 

Gehrig would leave Columbia University after just two years and went to Hartford, where he played minor league ball for the Yankees.

It took Gehrig only a couple of months to make his debut in the pinstripes, although he saw limited action in his first two years as a Yankee. 

On June 1, 1925, Gehrig pinch-hit for Paul Wanniger at shortstop and then started at first base the next day.  The everyday first baseman, Wally Pipp, was in a slump and Yankee manager Miller Huggins was looking to shake things up in the lineup.

Little did Huggins know that it would be 13 years and 2,130 games later that someone else would take the field at first base for the Bronx Bombers. 

Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played would last until 1995, when Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed the mark.

In the time Gehrig played in New York, he was a seven-time All Star, six-time World Series champion, two-time American League MVP, and a Triple Crown Winner in 1934.

He averaged 147 RBI’s a year during his career, ended with a .340 career batting average, and holds 20 American League and Major League records for a first baseman. 

What made Gehrig’s numbers all that more impressive was that for the majority of his career, he batted behind two of the best run producers of all time in Babe Ruth and Joe Dimaggio, who rank second and 43rd on the all-time RBI list.

Playing with both Ruth and DiMaggio also helped Gehrig fly under the radar for most of his career.  Always known for being one of the nicest men in all the game, Gehrig went out and played his game while leaving most of the fame to the sluggers batting in front of him.

In 1938, the left-handed slugger’s batting average fell below .300 for the first time in 13 years.  He complained of being tired during the second half of the season but couldn’t quite figure out what the problem was. 

Doctors first diagnosed Gehrig with a gall bladder infection, but it was clear that was not the issue.

At the start of the 1939 season, it was evident that something had changed with Gehrig physically.

He no longer hit for power, had trouble getting around the basepaths, and even collapsed during a spring training practice.  In the month of April that year, he finished with a .143 batting average and just one RBI.

On May 2, Gehrig approached manager Joe McCarthy and told him he was taking himself out of the lineup for the game that day. 

His reasoning?  “For the good of the team,” he said. 

As the Tigers took the field to being the game, PA announcer told the fans ” Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time Lou Gehrig’s name will not appear on the Yankee lineup in 2,130 consecutive games.”

Upon hearing this, Gehrig drew a standing ovation from everyone in Briggs Stadium while he sat on the bench with tears in his eyes.  For the next couple of weeks, Gehrig would stay with the team but would never play the game of baseball again.

After Gehrig’s physical condition continued to decline, he and his wife Eleanor flew to a Mayo Clinic to determine what was wrong with him.  After six days of testing, it was discovered that Gehrig had an extremely rare form of degenerative disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

The outlook was anything but in Gehrig’s favor, as effects of the disease included increasing paralysis, difficulty swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of less than five years.

When word spread of Gehrig’s disease, New York sportswriter Paul Gallico came up with the idea to have a day honoring Gehrig for everything he had done for the Yankees.  On June 21, it was announced that July 4 would be Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at the historic Yankee Stadium.

Two weeks later, July 4, the Yankees played a doubleheader against the Washington Senators.  In between the two games, one of the most famous baseball speeches was given.

Before Gehrig’s speech, the 1927 World Series Champion Yankee team and the current 1939 team lined the field to honor the first baseman. 

He was given gifts from various people and groups including the rival New York Giants, groundskeepers from Yankee Stadium, and a trophy presented to Gehrig by his manager and friend Joe McCarthy that was signed by the entire team. 

After Gehrig was handed a gift from someone, he needed to put it down in front of him almost immediately because he was too weak to hold almost anything. 

That trophy is now on display at the Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. and was one of Gehrig’s most prized possessions.

After speeches from New York’s Mayor and Postmaster General, Yankee manager Joe McCarthy headed to the microphone to speak of Gehrig.

Failing to hold back tears, McCarthy spoke of how Gehrig was “the finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman, and citizen that baseball has ever known”.

"The Iron Horse" was one of baseball's greatest hitters of all time.

Next, it was time for Gehrig to deliver his speech.  At first, Gehrig was too emotional to even speak to the crowd of over 61,000. 

As he moved towards the microphone, the crowd rose to their feet to give Gehrig an ovation.  As he spoke, the fragile Gehrig talked about how lucky of a man he was.

He mentioned how thankful he was of everyone in the Yankees organization, from owner Jacob Ruppert all the way down to the groundskeepers.  He thanked his family for being a blessing to him that allowed him to receive an education and build his body physically. 

He also thanked his wife for being ”a tower of strength”.  He ended his speech by saying ”so 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.”

That’s right.  A man dying from a disease with no cure considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth”. 

He was too weak to even carry a trophy given to him by his teammates, yet he thanked them for sharing in the monumental day with him.

Even Babe Ruth, who had been in a feud with Gehrig for the last five years, showed up to honor him.  He put his arm around him and spoke in his ear as the two shared a smile.

Lou Gehrig did not share the ego that Ruth had.  He didn’t have a Marilyn Monroe to match DiMaggio.  What he did have was a larger than life heart, a sincere love of the game, and a winning attitude that saw him accomplish so much during his career.

Gehrig had his jersey number retired that day, and no one has ever worn No. 4 for the Yankees since. 

He was the first player ever to have his jersey retired and that following December, Gehrig was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame at just 36 years of age, the youngest player ever elected.

Reporters said that at the end of Gehrig’s speech, fans gave him a standing ovation that lasted two minutes.  70 years later, we continue to applaud Lou Gehrig for everything that he has done for the game of baseball and so much more.

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