75 years ago today, July 4, 1939 at Yankees Stadium in Bronx, NY, a frail looking Lou Gehrig stepped on to the field for the last time, wearing his New York Yankees uniform with the familiar number 4 on the back. Gehrig was visibly emotional as the crowd cheered him on. Members of the 1939 Yankees along with what is considered the greatest team ever, the famed 1927 Yankees, formed two lines that stretched from the microphones at home plate to the pitcher’s mound.
As Gehrig stood before the mikes during the pre-game celebration on Lou Gehrig Day, he was a man whose body was ravaged by a disease that would soon bare his name (ALS) and burdened by the fact that death was coming soon to him. The disease robbed him of his Hall of Fame career and the ability to lead a normal life. Yet, with the immortal words, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man in the world,” Gehrig resisted bitterness as he stood before the crowd a humbled man who was thankful for the many blessings he had received while a member of the Bronx Bombers.
It seemed fitting that the day the Yankees would choose to honor their dying hero was Independence day. Gehrig’s life was an example of the qualities that America itself has always been made of. Gehrig was a man that came from a poor family of German immigrants. Gehrig was able to overcome society’s obstacles and achieve his American dream of playing Major League Baseball through hard work and his own God given talent. Even while facing death, Gehrig refused to surrender to bitterness and despair. He kept his humble demeanor and remained thankful for everything he had received in his life right to the end.
Gehrig's path to baseball immortality began while attending Columbia University in New York. In 1923 he pitched and played first base for the Columbia Nine team. It was during that season Yankees scout Paul Krichell attended a Columbia game and witnessed the talented Gehrig in person. Krichell signed him to a contract with a $1,500 bonus.
Gehrig made his MLB debut on June 15, 1923 as a pinch-hitter in the Yankees 10-0 win over the St. Louis Browns. He had 13 pinch-hit at-bats that season, batting .423 (11-26) with one home run and eight RBI’s. The Yankees made the World Series that year against the New York Giants but Gehrig did not make the roster.
Gehrig bounced between Hartford and the Yankees during the 1924 season, once again being used only as a pinch-hitter.
On June 2, 1925 Yankees manager Miller Huggins sat first baseman Wally Pipp after he experienced either a headache, double vision, or both. Gehrig stayed at first for the next 2,130 games, playing through the pain of broken bones and a bad back. Gehrig’s incredible endurance earned him the nickname “Iron horse. The consecutive games streak would stand until shortstop Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles passed him on September 6, 1995.
Gehrig played in 2,164 games before being forced to retire following the eighth game of the 1939 season. It was clear that something was wrong with Gehrig during the 1938 season when his production began to drop. His average fell below .300 for the first time in his career and the ball no longer exploded off his bat. Gehrig’s energy level also dropped dramatically.
Gehrig was initially diagnosed with a bad gall bladder and placed on a bland diet that only weakened him. Gehrig’s condition worsened over the winter following the 1938 season. Teammates commented on how frail Gehrig was looking and noticed he was even beginning to have difficulty picking his feet up while walking.
Gehrig went into spring training in 1939 weak and unable at times to make it to first base to receive the throw on groundballs hit to the infield. He collapsed on the field during a spring training game. Rumors began to swirl throughout baseball regarding Gehrig’s health and declining production. Talk of Gehrig sitting out a game began to reach fever pitch. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy refused to make the decision himself to bench Gehrig and end the streak.
"That's Lou's decision,” McCarthy is reported to have said in response to questions about sitting Gehrig.
Lou’s decision came on May 2, 1939 in Detroit. As Yankee captain Gehrig walked the lineup card out to home plate umpire Steve Basil, as he normally would do. This lineup card would end up being different. At first base the name Babe Dahlgren appeared on the lineup card. The first time in 15 seasons the name Lou Gehrig was not written in next to first base.
The Briggs Stadium announcer informed the crowd of the shocking news, "Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Gehrig's consecutive streak of 2,130 games played has ended."
Gehrig traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN with the hope of finally finding out what was causing his difficulties. Mayo doctors diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare degenerative disease that strips nerve cells of their ability to interact with muscles. The disease would later become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Upon learning of the disease that had been plaguing him for over a year and coming to terms with what the disease meant for his future, Gehrig retired from the game he loved. The American public was shocked by the news that a man who was looked upon as being indestructible was in the fight of his life against a disease that most people didn't understand or had even heard of before now.
The Yankees decided to hold Lou Gehrig day in order to honor one of their greatest players ever at Yankees Stadium on July 4, 1939. 62,500 fans turned out to see the Iron Horse for one last time in a Yankee uniform. Gehrig slowly walked out of the Yankee dugout and onto the field.
Wiping away tears, the shy and humble Gehrig gave a short, emotional speech to the crowd that would go down as one of the great speeches in American history.
"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.
“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.
“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. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so 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 may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for"
At the conclusion of the speech, his former teammate and rival, Babe Ruth, walked over and hugged him. It was a moment that touched everyone in attendance, especially the ‘27 Yankees who experienced all those tense moments in which peronalities and egos clashed between two giants of the game. If there was still a dry eye in that stadium after Gehrig’s speech, they had tears in them now.
That December the Baseball Hall of Fame waved the five year minimum waiting period after retirement and held a special election that put Gehrig into the Hall of Fame. The Yankees also became the first team to retire a uniform number as they did with Gehrig’s number four.
Gehrig remained as active as his health would allow him following retirement. He worked with troubled youth in New York City and became a member of the Parole Board.
As 1941 began, Gehrig’s health began to decline to the point that he couldn’t stand up or sign his own name. On June 2 of that year the end came for the Iron Horse as he died in his sleep at his home in Riverdale, NY at the age of 37. An entire nation mourned his passing and even President Franklin Roosevelt sent flowers. Eleanor, his wife of almost nine years, never left his side during the entire course of the illness. She never remarried and remained devoted to preserving his legacy until her own death on her 80th birthday in 1984.
The Yankees dedicated a monument in Gehrig’s honor in 1941 that today sits in Monument Park at Yankees Stadium. Major League Baseball established the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award that’s given yearly to the player that exhibits the personal qualities that Gehrig possessed.
On the 75th Anniversary of the farewell speech, Major League Baseball had Yankees great Derek Jeter along with all 30 first baseman recite Gehrig’s speech for a video that will be shown before every game on July 4.
Gehrig's Career Totals:
.340 Batting Average, 493 Home Runs and 1,995 RBI's.