The 75th Anniversary Of The Most Heart Wrenching Speech In Baseball History…

Marc Elliott

MINNEAPOLIS…. This recent 4th of July marked the 75th anniversary of the day of the most famous speech in baseball history. Every team and ballpark in the league was honoring the day the New York Yankees’ Lou Gehrig told the baseball and sporting world of his challenging situation and that he was no longer going to be able to play the game he so loved. And with the Yanks in town for a four-game set with our Minnesota Twins, the day had a little extra meaning to it. Players on both squads (and all MLB teams) as well as the umpires for the game were sporting commemorative patches, and there was a moment before the bottom of the 4th started when the speech was highlighted for its moment in baseball history.
I would imagine that most people above the age of 35, baseball fan or not, have seen the film of Gehrig giving the speech. It is that iconic of a moment in the culture of our country. And observing the day gave me pause to go through the history of Gehrig’s career, which was a neat peek back into baseball back then. I have to admit that since the late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner kicked off the modern era of baseball by “buying” contending teams through free agent shopping and signings, my love of the Yankees went from lukewarm to dry-ice frozen and has only diminished even further.
But when I was a kid, my first professional baseball experience was a 1962 doubleheader between the Twins and Yankees at the old Metropolitan Stadium. We lived just a few minutes away, and I will absolutely never forget walking into that stadium and smelling the hot dogs and popcorn immediately. But that was just the first treat of the day. When I walked through the entryway to the playing field with my father holding my hand and saw the green grass and white chalk lines and the players out there for warm-ups, I was in a complete trance. I was seven years old. There about 100 feet away were Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
I knew about the Yankees, as my mom had me reading the newspaper every day since I was five years old. The sports section was always my first stop. And of course my lifelong love affair with the Twins was in its infancy. It was the second year of the Twins being in Minnesota. But back then, money had yet to cast its pall over the game, and it just seemed to be a cleaner, purer day and age of the game. Mickey and Roger WERE likeable. And you had to at least admire the Bronx Bombers—they were the gold standard, and there was little debate about it.
And then there was Gehrig. He wasn’t just good back in his day—he still holds several Yankee team records. He is still the career leader of the club for doubles (tied with Jeter), triples, and runs batted in. His single-season RBI record is a team and AL record. At one time he held the career Grand Slam record. He also has the most consecutive seasons with 120-plus RBIs, most runs scored, most walks, highest on-base percentage, highest slugging percentage, and most extra base hits by a first baseman. And these are just the highlights of the list. Yes, there is much more if you add in the records where he holds second or third place. It’s crazy to think about it. How could you even quantify a contract for this player today?
In the 1938 season, Gehrig began to feel differently physically. His stats for the year, though, weren’t an indicator of what was about to unfold for him. It was at the 1939 spring training camp that Gehrig’s physical challenges became evident in his game. His formidable hitting and base-running skills were deteriorating, leaving baseball reporters and fans to speculate about what was happening with their hero. On April 30th versus the Washington Senators, Gehrig went hitless and was having obvious problems just making his way around the field.
May 1st was an off day, and the next day Gehrig approached Yank skipper Joe McCarthy to pull him from the lineup “for the good of the team.” He had played in 2,130 consecutive tilts. At Detroit, Gehrig took the lineup card out to home plate before the game, then the stadium announcer informed the fans that Gehrig would not be in the lineup that day, closing out his iron man streak that wouldn’t be broken until Cal Ripken did it in September of 1995. The Tiger fans gave Gehrig a standing ovation while he sat in the dugout too choked up to come out.
He soon went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he received the grim news: he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It was thought that Gehrig might have only about three years to live. The club issued a statement on June 21st that Gehrig was retiring from the Yankees, although he stayed with the club the rest of the year and remained as team captain. As a result, the team wished to honor him in some way, and eventually settled on the July 4th home game as the time to do so.
That day the ballpark was filled to capacity with fans, the most important people in New York at the time and a lot of former teammates from some of the most accomplished Yank teams of all-time, including George Herman Ruth. Gehrig received many gifts, trophies, and accolades from the assembled faithful, and then it was his turn at the microphone. The opening part of his remarks—“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 the earth”—have been heard literally millions of times since that day.
And if you have any heart at all, you will be choked up when you hear them. Gehrig passed away not quite two years later. If you ever have the desire to look up the definition for superb athlete, citizen, and person, go to your dictionary and next to it you will see Gehrig’s picture. He was the real deal… PEACE

Marc Elliott is a sports opinion writer who splits his time between Minnesota and his hometown in Illinois…