The two greatest sports’ speeches were given by two men dying of hideous diseases. Jim Valvano was awarded the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the first annual ESPY Awards. The last line of his speech was “Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.” I listen to this speech every year and it always gives me the chills. This brings me to what many consider the greatest sports’ speech of all-time, Lou Gehrig’s speech given on July 4, 1939. On this day the Yankees honored him between a double-header against Washington. This year will mark the 75th anniversary of his speech.
Two months before his speech Gehrig asked his manager Joe McCarthy to scratch his name from the lineup. In the ninth inning his replacement approached Lou and suggested he go into the field to keep his streak alive. The honorable Gehrig declined and his streak ended at 2,130 games. His production as a batter began slipping in 1938 and took a dive at the beginning of the 1939 season. He went to the Mayo Clinic and was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. After hearing the diagnosis he returned to New York and announced his retirement in June of 1939.
Jonathan Eig, in his book “The Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig” raises these questions about the speech. Was the speech prepared ahead of time? If the answer is yes did anyone help Lou write the speech? What did he say in the parts of the speech that were lost in the film? His research showed that only the first, second, fourth and final sentences of the speech survive on film. The rest of the speech was pieced together from various interviews and newspaper accounts. As 61,000 fans chanted his name a reluctant Gehrig approached the microphone. Silence fell over the stadium. “For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break, he began. He paused and continued, “Yet, today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” The speech ends with him 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.” Gehrig lived less than two years after giving his speech. His July 4th 1939 speech was voted by the fans as the fifth greatest moment in MLB history.
As we approach another July 4th, it seems appropriate to revisit the career of Lou Gehrig. Gehrig spent his entire career (1923-1939) with the Yankees. He is one of 11 MLB players to achieve the Triple Crown Award (.363 BA, 49 HR, 165 RBI in 1934), With Stan Musial, he was one of two players to collect at least 500 doubles, 150 triples, and 450 home runs in a career. He is one of only four players (with Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams) to end his career with a minimum .330 batting average, 450 home runs, and 1,800 RBI. He is the only player in MLB history to have over 400 total bases in five seasons. He was voted the starting first baseman on the MLB All-Century Team. He was also selected to the Major League Baseball All-Time Team. Lou was a 7 time All-Star, a 2 time MVP, a 3 time AL home run champion, the first player to hit 4 home runs in one game, a 6 time World Series champion, and the first player to have his number retired.
On August 1, 2014, Heritage Auctions will be auctioning off a ticket stub signed by Lou Gehrig on July 4, 1939. This is one of only two ticket stubs that have survived. It is estimated the ticket stub will fetch $100,000. Heritage’s director of sports memorabilia, Chris Ivy, calls it “the most significant baseball ticket in the world.”
When deciding how to end my book “Sandlot Stats”, the answer was clear. My book would end with a tribute to Lou Gehrig followed by the beautiful words of his speech