It was not until high school that I began my love affair with baseball. Prior to that, I had been the epitome of the casual fan: I knew my team, the Yankees, and that’s pretty much it. Even after becoming a die-hard baseball and Yankees fan, I got to enjoy a plethora of spine-tingling Yankee moments: the first game after 9/11, Hideki Matsui’s first grand slam, Derek Jeter‘s flip play, the final game at Yankee Stadium, and my favorite – Aaron Boone’s walk-off homer. I’ve been able to witness all of these extremely emotional moments in Yankee history, but there is one that I would have loved to been alive for and able to witness: Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Address.
Born and raised in New York City, Lou Gehrig first made headlines as a 17 year-old when he hit a grand-slam out of Wrigley Field during a high school championship game. He went on to play baseball in college for Columbia until the Yankees took notice and signed him as a 20 year-old.
Gehrig spent his first three seasons as a pinch-hitter and part-time player. After the Wally Pip incident, Gehrig enjoyed a breakout season and never looked back. His career highlights include a 2,130 consecutive games streak which earned him the nickname “Iron Horse,” and a career .340/.447/.632 line. He drove in more than 150 runs seven times in his career and was voted to the first seven All-Star teams. He was also awarded the Triple Crown in 1934 after hitting .363-49-165. Amazingly, he drew 109 walks while striking out only 31 times that season.
The fact that he was named the American League MVP in both 1927 (as a member of “Murderer’s Row”) and 1936 is a testament to his durability and skill as a ballplayer. He even hit .295 with 29 home runs while battling Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in 1938. Although his career statistics are a fine representation of Lou Gehrig as a player, no number could be placed upon the quality of his character. Gehrig remains as one of the finest men to ever grace the game of baseball. From charity events to overall decency, no Yankee can hold a candle to Gehrig’s sportsmanship and compassion.
The Yankees held Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4th, 1939, only two weeks after the slugger’s retirement. Allegedly, sportswriter Paul Gallico suggested that the Yankees hold a ceremony in his honor, and after the first game of a double header against the Washington Senators, 61,808 fans stood and paid respect to one of the greatest players in baseball history. That was only the beginning of this historically heart-wrenching moment.
The Seventh Regiment Band and several of Gehrig’s old teammates opened the ceremony with a parade. Even Babe Ruth was in attendance. The current and former Yankees, along with other important figures gathered around home plate as the crowd chanted Gehrig’s name.
A tearful Joe McCarthy, Gehrig’s manager and close friend, introduced Gehrig, describing him as the “finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman, and citizen that baseball has ever known,” before breaking down in tears. The fans watched as Gehrig became the first player to have his number retired, and then the Iron Horse took the stage and made his famous speech:
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. “Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t have considered it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrows? 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 groundskeeper and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something. When you have a father and mother work all their lives so that 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 saying that I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
The speech drove both players and fans to tears. Gehrig had signified strength throughout his career and everyone watched as their hero struggled to hold the trophies and awards given to him. As sad as this moment is, I would have loved to been in the stands and pay respects to one of the greatest athletes of all time. In my mind, Lou Gehrig will always stand not as the greatest player, but as the greatest Yankee of all time.