Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Luckiest Man

I've already written about the significance of July 4th.  It is, of course, the "nation's birthday."

In sports, it's baseball.  Sure, it's Wimbledon and others, but here, it's baseball.

On this day in 1983, Dave Righetti threw the first no-hitter by a Yankees pitcher since Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series, and the first regular season no-hitter since Allie Reynolds in 1951.

Both (Righetti and Reynolds) threw their efforts against the Red Sox.  Both required retiring the best hitter in the game for the final out (Reynolds had to get Ted Williams - not once, but twice as Yogi Berra dropped a foul ball, only to have the same thing happen.  Righetti struck out Wade Boggs.).

And while many of us remember July 4th for Righetti, we all should remember it for Henry Louis Gehrig.

Born June 19, 1903 in New York, Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig was known as "Lou" to differentiate him from his father.  Lou was the only Gehrig child to live to adulthood, as two daughters died due to whooping cough and measles, and another son died in infancy.

His mother Christina doted on him, while his father struggled to keep work. He attended Columbia University (though he did not graduate) and attracted the eye of Yankees scout Paul Krichell, much to the disdain of his mother.

Shy and very uncomfortable socially, he made it to the Yankees, debuting June 15, 1923.  He began his legendary 2130 consecutive game streak on June 1, 1925, and would not take a day off until he pulled himself out of the lineup before a game in Detroit on May 2, 1939.

Cal Ripken Jr broke Gehrig's streak in 1995.

The reason for Gehrig's departure from the lineup - and into retirement - was the diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  It has since, of course, become known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Incidentally, an effort has been underway for some time to unseal Gehrig's medical records at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to determine if his condition was a result of concussions and not ALS.

New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia addresses the crowd at "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day," July 4, 1939.
A tribute was planned, "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day," at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939.  Between games of a doubleheader with the Washington Senators, Gehrig was honored with various trophies and gifts as his 1927 "Murderers Row" teammates gathered on the field.  For Lou, it meant a reunion with his former partner Babe Ruth, whom he had a strained relationship with.

He was presented with a trophy from the Yankees that included a poem written New York Times writer John Kiernan that said
We’ve been to the wars together;
We took our foes as they came;
And always you were the leader,
And ever you played the game.
Idol of cheering millions,
Records are yours by sheaves;
Iron of frame they hailed you
Decked you with laurel leaves.
But higher than that we hold you,
We who have known you best;
Knowing the way you came through
Every human test.
Let this be a silent token
Of lasting Friendship’s gleam,
And all that we’ve left unspoken;
Your Pals of the Yankees Team.

After all of the presentations and remarks, including those of Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, Lou was ushered, sheepishly, to the microphone.  He initially said he would address the crowd, and had prepared an outline, but now he felt he couldn't, under the strain of the emotion.

Finally, in a ballpark with over 68,000 spectators, Gehrig spoke as the place went virtually silent.

Gehrig never rehearsed his words.

There is no exact transcript of what exactly Lou said, nor is there a full broadcast or movie.  There are various versions, with Gehrig's own website giving one version, and Jonathan Eig's wonderful, must-read biography, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig saying something else.  Marty Appel's brilliant Yankees history, Pinstripe Empire, also got in on the act.

There are parts that are completely agreed on, in part because there is video of those parts.  Gehrig said, beyond a doubt, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."  It is, with respect to Jim Valvano and other great, legendary sports speeches, sports version of the Gettysburg Address.
"For the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. 
"When you look around, wouldn't you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in the ballpark today? 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 such a grand little fellow as 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?  Who wouldn't feel honored to room with such a grand guy as Bill Dickey?

"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.

"That I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you."

The famous hug of Ruth to Gehrig.
Gehrig departed to a thunderous cheer and a hug from Ruth.  Although he played in New York and retired second in career home runs (493), Gehrig might be, quite bluntly, the most underappreciated athlete, perhaps ever in New York, as well as in sports. He played in the shadow of Ruth and, eventually, a hotshot youngster named Joe DiMaggio.

His uniform number 4 was retired - the first ever in sports history - on that Fourth of July in 1939.

Lou Gehrig died less than two years later, on June 2, 1941, a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday.  His remains are interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, NY.

This a Movietone news reel from 1939.

I could write so much more about Gehrig.  While it's easy to admire Ruth - and I do - I truly believe I would have been a Gehrig guy.  His humility, quiet leadership, and talent were rare.  He was Ruth without the flash.

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