Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Lou Gehrig Day

Happy Fourth of July or Independence Day. Whatever term you choose, please be safe and happy and enjoy the very freedoms that a whole of people fought for.

No political thoughts are intended in that sentence.

However, I'd also like it if you took a moment to think of Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig, or Henry Louis Gehrig.

You've no doubt heard the name. If you know sports, you know who Lou Gehrig is. He hit 493 home runs when that was still a really big deal. He played 2130 consecutive games (no further comment on the breaking of that record, which deserved to stand for all-time). He was number four to Babe Ruth's number three. There were MVP's, a triple crown, and World's Championships in 1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, and 1938.

He had a cup of coffee in 1923, and finished his career in early 1939 -- both also championship years for the New York Yankees.

In fact, Gehrig only lost one world series, in 1926, when Ruth was caught stealing to end Game 7. I can't even imagine what sports talk radio would have been like.

Gehrig was The Pride of the Yankees. He was The Iron Horse.

He also died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on June 2, 1941 at the age of 37.

We have come to know ALS as "Lou Gehrig's Disease."

But it was on July 4, 1939, just a few weeks after the news had broken that Lou was retiring from baseball, that he left his truly indelible mark on the world.

A reported 61,808 filled Yankee Stadium on that Tuesday afternoon to see the Washington Senators beat the Bombers in game one of a doubleheader, 3-2. Between games, a microphone was set up for the ceremony to honor Gehrig. Members of the 1927 "Murderers Row" team were on hand, and both teams lined the sides of the path between home plate and the pitchers mound.

Gehrig didn't intend to speak. In his book, The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic, Richard Sandomir offers that Eleanor Gehrig might have worked on a speech with her husband, feeling that Lou should offer the fans something. Eleanor, who was a lot spunkier (and maybe even more controlling) than the way Teresa Wright portrayed her in the movie three years later, also didn't want Babe Ruth to steal the spotlight from her husband.

Overcome with emotion by the gifts and offerings of kindness, Gehrig waved off master of ceremonies Sid Mercer. But the crowd chanted his name. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, who was worried that the frail Gehrig would fall over in the July heat, gently ushered the 36-year-old to the microphone.

You all know what happened next. Sort of. One of the sad parts of the story is that there are only a few portions of the actually speech. No full recording exists -- either on radio or film. Nobody transcribed it. Jonathan Eig, in his book Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig (and still the finest biography I've ever written), has the closest to the actual text.

Still, we know the words: "For the past two weeks, you've been reading about a bad break."

"Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

He emphasized those words: "luckiest man." He went on to explain why. He had an amazing wife. Parents. Fans. Opponents. Teammates. But more than that, he highlighted the groundskeepers, office staff, and concessionaires.

He packed all into a fairly short speech.

Sixty-one thousand listened in silence. Journalists choked back tears. It was -- as has been written by Sandomir and others -- a baseball funeral.

"That I might have been given a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you."
Moments after the speech, the authors of 107 home runs in 1927 embrace.
Ruth broke the tension by wrapping him in a bear hug. The Yankees of the day proceeded to wipe out the Senators in the second game, 11-1. Joe DiMaggio had three hits and Joe Gordon drove in four runs. A pitcher named Steve Sundra pitched a six-hitter.

Yankees games had just begun to be carried on the radio in 1939 (there was a silly agreement in New York that radio was bad for attendance prior to that), but John Sterling was not the broadcaster. There is no known audio of that day, and we can only imagine what it sounded like.

That was 1939. In the 79 years since, we've made some strides against ALS, but we're not close enough. Just four short years ago -- in 2014 -- ice buckets rained down on many, including me, in an effort to raise awareness. It brought ALS back into the forefront, and that was a great thing. We're talking about ALS more than ever.

Those same ice buckets hit people who didn't really know Lou Gehrig. But they cared about this disease.

It's not enough. We have much work to do on such an awful disease.

That's why I'm asking you to think of Lou Gehrig today. With no disrespect ever intended to the great Jim Valvano, Gehrig's speech is still our Gettysburg Address of sports. For Lou Gehrig -- a shy gentleman not known for making speeches -- to put together such strength and grace? It's almost unthinkable.

Valvano's speech was magical, but what else would you expect from "V?"

But those words of Lou Gehrig, the only surviving child of immigrants (whose parents, sadly, outlived him) still ring, and not just because Hollywood rewrote them for Gary Cooper in 1942.

You've heard them..."luckist man"'ve said them, no doubt with a fake echo..."Today today today today, I consider myself elf elf."

Let them ring loudly today. Like a firecracker in silence.

July 4th.

Independence Day.

Lou Gehrig Day.

No comments: