75 years ago: The day Yankee stadium wept

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 4, 2014 - 2:24 PM

A dying Lou Gehrig found it in himself to deliver a powerful message of hope on July 4, 1939.

hide

Ceremony Friday honoring Lou Gehrig at Target Field.

Photo: Phil Miller, Phil Miller

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

Lou Gehrig didn’t want to say a word. When he did, he changed the world.

The most famous, most iconic, most moving speech in baseball history almost never happened, because Gehrig, overwhelmed by emotion after listening to one tribute after another in an on-field ceremony he had dreaded, declined to address a solemn Yankee Stadium crowd of 61,000 afterward. Later, he told his teammates he feared he might fall over, so overwrought was the scene. So the master of ceremonies announced that Gehrig would remain silent.

His legions of fans, as moved by the day’s subtext as he was, would not. A chant began almost immediately, and finally consumed the stadium: “We want Lou! We want Lou!” The object of all that passion, who had learned in Minnesota just a week earlier that he was doomed to a swift and sickly death, finally relented, stepped forward to the microphone at his manager’s urging, and slowly, shyly began to speak.

What he said next, the 250 or so words that he shared between games of a doubleheader with the Washington Senators (forerunners of today’s Twins) exactly 75 years ago, mesmerized America, caused a stadium full of people to openly weep, changed medical history, saved countless lives, and transformed a baseball hero into, simply, a hero. “For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break,” the Yankees slugger said, the electricity of the moment causing him to mispronounce “break” as “brag.” And then, the words that will forever be associated with him: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

“It was a hugely important speech, because it was the first time such a public figure had revealed his vulnerability. And not just revealed it, but confronted it, challenged it,” said Jonathan Eig, whose bestselling 2005 biography, “Luckiest Man,” is considered a definitive portrait of Gehrig. “He captured, beautifully and succinctly, his enthusiasm and appreciation for life. To step up and acknowledge his problems, and to do it in a brave and optimistic way, it changed a lot of people’s views about Gehrig and about facing hardship or death.”

It did at the time — Gehrig was inundated by sacks of mail that poured into Yankee Stadium in the weeks that followed — and it still does. The Yankees and Twins will pay tribute to Gehrig and his 1939 speech Friday at Target Field, as will all teams around baseball, with players reciting Gehrig’s words and greeting patients. Just as his speech has thousands of times already, the occasion will raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the degenerative muscular disease that ended his life in 1941, two weeks before his 38th birthday.

“To have a famous celebrity, a baseball icon, be associated with the disease, it’s unfortunate. But at the same time, it’s raised millions and millions of dollars to fight ALS and help those who have it,” said Twins coach Terry Steinbach, whose father died of ALS in 1999 and who has raised millions himself through his involvement in the annual Blizzard Tour snowmobile ride. “Who knows how many thousands of people have benefited specifically because Lou Gehrig had the disease. In that way, he’s still a hero today.”

‘Message of optimism’

Gehrig’s message of hope, delivered by thanking those close to him, was more important and more profound than the actual words — many of which are lost to history anyway. In fact, only four sentences of Gehrig’s speech, including the first two lines and the closing, are known to exist on audio or video recordings today. While a handful of cameramen recorded the speech, once the highlights were preserved for newsreels, the rest of the film apparently was destroyed. “I’ve searched every recording of Gehrig I can find but have never found anything other than those four sentences,” Eig said. “I keep hoping someone will find an old film in their attic.”

A consensus exists about most of it. Gehrig, who didn’t read from any notes but may have prepared his remarks the night before, as his wife, Eleanor, later claimed — “He was a very methodical man, so it would not be a surprise if he had jotted down some thoughts,” Eig said — thanked Yankees owners, employees and fans, his Hall of Fame managers Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy, his parents and in-laws, and especially his wife, all in describing how “lucky” he was to have lived such a public life.

At least a dozen newspaper reporters witnessed the speech, but most stopped typing, and some began sobbing, as they became absorbed in Gehrig’s spellbinding words, so the accounts of what he said vary significantly. For his book, Eig tried to piece together the speech from the most reliable stories he could find, but no completely verbatim transcript exists. In fact, most people regard Gary Cooper’s re-creation in the film “Pride of the Yankees” as accurate, though it was severely embellished and even rearranged by Hollywood screenwriters.

“But the word-for-word accuracy doesn’t matter as much as the message of optimism,” Eig said. “He knew he was facing death, but he chose to relish life instead.”

It’s a model that ALS patients have aspired to ever since. “He never said, ‘Woe is me,’ he said he was the luckiest man alive. He said he was blessed,” said Barb Brandt, whose husband, Michael, recited Gehrig’s words during Target Field ceremonies the past three seasons — each year with increasing difficulty, as his ALS worsened.

Michael Brandt died in January; the Eden Prairie couple’s teenage sons, Eric and Joe, will throw out the first pitches, with managers Ron Gardenhire and Joe Girardi catching, before Friday’s game. “It’s a really scary disease, but my experience is that many ALS patients have adopted Lou Gehrig’s positive attitude from that speech,” Barb Brandt said. “You can live and die with dignity.”

The Iron Horse

Gehrig certainly did both. Still considered one of the 10 greatest hitters in baseball history, a man who averaged 145 RBI in his prime and played for seven World Series champions, the Iron Horse was most famous for his streak of 2,130 consecutive games played.

That changed when the onset of ALS, first manifesting itself as shriveled muscles and advancing weakness, forced him to take himself out of the lineup in April 1939, ending his historic streak. Gehrig remained with the Yankees until June, when he tried to play in an exhibition game in Kansas City and was embarrassed by his weakness and deterioration. The next day, he left for Rochester, Minn., and the Mayo Clinic, where doctors quickly recognized his symptoms and gently broke the news: His condition was rapidly advancing — and terminal.

Word spread quickly that Gehrig’s career was over, because of “infantile paralysis” and “poliomyelitis,” terms that didn’t convey the seriousness of his condition to the public. The Yankees scheduled Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day for July 4th, hoping to sell a few extra tickets for a doubleheader against the sixth-place Senators. The ceremony, with both teams lined up along the baselines, featured speeches by, among others, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the U.S. postmaster general, and Babe Ruth, by then an ex-Yankee who hadn’t spoken to Gehrig in years.

  • related content

  • Lou Gehrig's famous speech

    Friday July 4, 2014

    “For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Today, I consider myself the luckiest man...

  • Reusse: The night the ironman torch was passed to Ripken

    Friday July 4, 2014

    For me, any reminder of Gehrig or Cal Jr. brings back a small, terrific moment in the Camden Yards press box on Sept. 6, 1995.

  • Lou Gehrig was a powerfully built first baseman for the Yankees from 1923 to 1939. The Hall of Famer died in 1941 at age 37.

  • Lou Gehrig, making his major league debut with the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 12, 1923.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions
Final123456789RHE
Minnesota000000000040
Detroit «00100002X340
@Ballpark Replay
Preview | Matchup | Lineup | Log | Wrap | Box
W:D.Price(15-12) L:K.Gibson(13-12) S:J.Nathan (35)
HR: MIN- None DET- I.Kinsler (17)

ADVERTISEMENT

New England 14 FINAL
Kansas City 41
Minnesota 10/2/14 7:25 PM
Green Bay
Buffalo 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Detroit
Chicago 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Cleveland 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
St. Louis 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Atlanta 10/5/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Tampa Bay 10/5/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Houston 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Dallas
Baltimore 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Pittsburgh 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Arizona 10/5/14 3:05 PM
Denver
Kansas City 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
NY Jets 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Diego
Cincinnati 10/5/14 7:30 PM
New England
Philadelphia 3 FINAL
NY Rangers 6
Toronto 0 FINAL
Detroit 3
Pittsburgh 1 FINAL
Minnesota 4
Columbus 3 FINAL
Nashville 0
Florida 4 FINAL
Dallas 5
Winnipeg 1 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Arizona 4 FINAL
Vancouver 2
Fla Atlantic 10/2/14 6:00 PM
FIU
UCF 10/2/14 6:00 PM
Houston
Arizona 10/2/14 9:30 PM
(2) Oregon
Louisville 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Syracuse
San Diego St 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Utah State 10/3/14 9:15 PM
(18) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(12) Miss State
Ball State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Army
Iowa State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(21) Oklahoma State
Marshall 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Old Dominion
Southern Miss 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
(20) Ohio State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Maryland
Purdue 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Florida 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Tennessee
SMU 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(22) East Carolina
Virginia Tech 10/4/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Eastern Mich 10/4/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Texas 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Indiana
Massachusetts 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Tulsa 10/4/14 2:00 PM
Colorado State
New Mexico 10/4/14 2:30 PM
TX-San Antonio
(3) Alabama 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(11) Ole Miss
(14) Stanford 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(9) Notre Dame
(17) Wisconsin 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Northwestern
Navy 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
(7) Baylor 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Texas
(4) Oklahoma 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(25) TCU
Wake Forest 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
NC State 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Clemson
Buffalo 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Bowling Green
Ohio U 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Central Mich
Oregon State 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Colorado
Vanderbilt 10/4/14 3:00 PM
(13) Georgia
Kansas 10/4/14 3:00 PM
West Virginia
Kent State 10/4/14 4:00 PM
Northern Ill
South Alabama 10/4/14 5:00 PM
Appalachian St
Texas-El Paso 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
(15) LSU 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
UAB 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Ky
Texas Tech 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(23) Kansas State
Michigan 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rutgers
Hawaii 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rice
Toledo 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Mich
ULM 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Georgia State 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana
Idaho 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Texas State
Memphis 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Arizona State 10/4/14 6:30 PM
(16) USC
So Carolina 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Kentucky
Pittsburgh 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Virginia
Miami-Florida 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Georgia Tech
(19) Nebraska 10/4/14 7:00 PM
(10) Michigan State
UNLV 10/4/14 7:00 PM
San Jose St
Ga Southern 10/4/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Utah 10/4/14 9:30 PM
(8) UCLA
Boise State 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
Winnipeg 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Ottawa
Calgary 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Saskatchewan
Edmonton 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Hamilton
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Is it the right move to replace Ron Gardenhire?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close