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.

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Ceremony Friday honoring Lou Gehrig at Target Field.

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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.

Gehrig was presented with framed memorabilia, trophies, silver platters, a ring, candlesticks. He stood uncomfortably nearby, fidgeting through one tribute after another, as though he couldn’t wait for it to end. And after the last speaker finished, he was asked if he had anything to say.

He didn’t — but finally he did. And after lifting the spirits of thousands, he finished with a flourish that has far outlived its speaker: “I may have been given a bad break,” Gehrig said, “but I have an awful lot to live for.”

 

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