The Gracious Courage of Lou Gehrig
He was a man eleven months removed from the longest consecutive games played in a series in major league history. Yet as he shuffled, and with some assistance, to the microphone he seemed a pale shadow of his once commanding physique. His body drooped as if his powerful biceps and tree trunk-like thighs hung from his bones.
He was the image of a spent man. Physically. Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, captain of the New York Yankees, the biggest ball club in the biggest city in America, leaned down and forward. His voice was hoarse, but it resonated with strength. He was back, if only for a moment, to enjoy the adulation of the New York fans who kept cheering. He was willing them to stop, but how. Then he spoke.
Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
Gehrig, gaunt and drawn, looked at everyone else but himself. He cited his owner and two managers.
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 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.
Gehrig was always in the vernacular of the day, a good sport, citing here their cross-town National League rivals.
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.
Historians debate about how much Gehrig knew about his condition. On this day, however, he was looking ahead.
So, I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.
When the speech, given impromptu and without notes, was done, Gehrig slipped from the field and back down into the Yankee clubhouse, never to set foot on a major league baseball diamond again. The day was hot, and Gehrig said later he was soaking wet with sweat. He died two years later on June 2, 1941 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or simply, “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
Complete recordings of the speech do not exist, and newsreel footage is incomplete. And as Richard Sandomir points out in his book, The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic, inthe movie that immortalized Gehrig for the ages, sportswriters felt free to summarize what he had said, sometimes faithfully, sometimes not. And for that reason, some of the names of players he cited are omitted.
You can tell a good deal about a man when he’s facing his end and Gehrig’s moment of farewell was less about him than about his experiences and all the good things he had experienced in baseball from his days at Columbia University to stardom with the Yankees.[i]
There is a curious backstory to the speech that Richard Sandomir tells in his book, The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.In 1943 Gary Cooper on a USO tour to entertain troops in the South Pacific. The fighting on the islands that Cooper visited was intense. While GIs, of course, wanted to see the starlets in the show, when Cooper visited New Guinea, one soldier called out to Cooper to do the “Luckiest Man” speech.
Others, who had seen The Pride of the Yankees, echoed the GI’s request. Cooper, ever the obliging star, asked for a moment to recollect his lines; it had been a year and half since he had filmed the speech. He scribbled some notes and gave his rendition. It was so popular that Cooper repeated it at all his stops, including a culminating show at the Royal Theatre in Sydney, Australia.
There was, as Sandomir writes, something in the words of a dying man looking at his end without rancor, choosing instead to focus on the positive things and life in the future that resonated with the troops fighting far from home in a forgotten corner of the world. Cooper/Gehrig reminded them of what they were fighting for in the Pacific, and if luck would have it, enjoy once again stateside.
This is an excerpt from my book, GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us, Indigo River Publishing 2019.
[i]Text of Lou Gehrig’s Address at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939
https://www.si.com/mlb/2009/07/04/gehrig-text; Richard SandomirThe Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a ClassicNew York: Hachette Books 2017