Another Bronx Tale: 4th of July, Lou Gehrig and The Yankees

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Another Bronx Tale: 4th of July, Lou Gehrig and The Yankees

Lou Gehrig making his famous “Luckiest Man” address to a packed house in Yankee Stadium, 71 years ago this Fourth of July.

George Steinbrenner, a Yankee Doodle Dandy, was born on The Fourth of July. The Yankee owner turned 80 this year.

Three years before George was born, the famed 1927 Yankees entertained the second place Washington Senators before 74,000 fans in a holiday doubleheader at Yankee Stadium.

Any notions the Nats entertained for staying in the race were quickly shattered that afternoon. The Yankees swept Washington, 12-1 and 21-1, opened up an 11 1/2 game lead in the American League, and never looked back in winning their second World Championship.

In the opener the Yankees collected 18 hits, including four by third baseman Joe Dugan (a Holy Cross man), and home runs by Lou Gehrig and catcher Pat Collins. George Pipgras pitched a complete game for the win.

Fourth of July Fireworks
But the Yankees were just warming up.  In the nightcap, they pounded out 19 hits in support of Wilcy Moore. Tony Lazzeri had four hits, including a pair of doubles, and drive in five runs. Babe Ruth tripled and was 3-3. And Gehrig hit the third of his record 23 grand slams and finished with five RBIs.

When action concluded that Fourth of July, Gehrig was hitting .396, with 28 home runs and 96 RBIs — in just 74 games, less than half a season.

Later that year, Ruth passed him for the home run title and eventually hit 60, while Detroit’s Harry Heilmann led the AL in batting at .398. All Gehrig did in 1927, was hit .373 with 47 homers and a league-leading 175 RBIs.

Twelve years later, on July 4, 1939, the Yankees hosted the Senators in another holiday doubleheader. The teams split, Washington winning the opener 3-2 and the Yankees taking the second game, 11-1. George “Twinkletoes” Selkirk homered in each game, but that’s not what fans and baseball historians remember about that Independence Day.

Gehrig’s Farewell Speech
Because that’s the day when a dying Lou Gehrig delivered his famous farewell speech between games of the doubleheader. Gehrig’s tearful remarks are often referred to as baseball’s “Gettysburg Address.”

After Gehrig spoke, the huge crowd stood and applauded for almost two minutes. Gehrig was visibly shaken as he stepped away from the microphone, and wiped the tears away from his face with his handkerchief.

Babe Ruth came over and hugged him. Later that year, the Baseball Writers Association elected Gehrig to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, waiving the mandatory five-year waiting period.

And less than two years later Lou Gehrig passed away, a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the disease that now bears his name. The Yankee captain, the Iron Horse, was just 37 years old.

Holiday at The Stadium
Years later, my son, brother-in-law and nephew and I went to a Fourth of July game at Yankee Stadium, this one in 2003.. No holiday doubleheader that day, but the Yankees beat the Cleveland Indians 7-1 behind Mike Mussina, with home runs by Raul Mondesi and Jason Giambi.

Before the game, as we were parking in my favorite spot in The Bronx — free and easy access to the Major Deegan northbound — an elderly gentleman climbed out of the his car next to us. He was wearing a blue Lou Gehrig #4 jersey. We remarked on his taste in Yankee ware.

The man then told us that he had gone to his first major league game 64 years ago to the day, July 4, 1939. Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium. He said he had seen hundreds of games since that one, but Gehrig’s farewell remained his greatest thrill.

Sometimes baseball and history come together nicely….just like that.

Related Story: Nice piece by Ray Robinson of The New York Times on Gehrig’s farewell address.


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