Two weeks after his retirement from baseball, the New York Yankees’ Lou Gehrig spoke during a tribute at Yankee Stadium in New York, between games of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators on July 4, 1939. Gehrig’s retirement came after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now popularly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
The degenerative nerve disorder would ultimately take Gehrig’s life less than two years later.
Born on June 19, 1903 in New York City, Gehrig was the only surviving son of German immigrants Christina and Heinrich. In 1921, he began school at Columbia on a football scholarship to obtain a degree in engineering. He was banned from intercollegiate sports during his freshman year, after being discovered playing summer professional baseball under an assumed name. In 1922, however, he played fullback for the Columbia football team, then pitched and played first base for the Columbia Nine in 1923. His performance as a baseball player impressed Yankees scout Paul Krichell, and Gehrig signed with the Yankees in 1923. After a full season playing for the Hartford team, Lou Gehrig joined the Yankees for good in 1925.
Once Gehrig replaced Wally Pipp at first base, he did not miss a start for more than 13 years. He played in 2,130 consecutive games, a record that stood until Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it in 1995. Gehrig played through broken bones, back spasms, hits in the head by pitches (helmets were not being used during his time), and multiple hand fractures that were later discovered to have “healed” while he continued to play. Gehrig’s endurance and strength earned him the nickname “Iron Horse.”
Then, in 1938, Gehrig’s batting average fell below .300 for the first time since 1925. At the end of the season, Gehrig confessed, “I tired mid-season. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t get going again.” At first, doctors diagnosed a gall bladder problem and put him on a bland diet. But the diet only made him weaker. During the Yankees 1939 spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, it was evident that Gehrig’s base running and power were affected. At one point, he even collapsed on Al Lang Field. He did not hit a single home run throughout spring training, and once the 1939 season began, he collected only four hits in the first eight games.
On May 2, 1939, Lou Gehrig pulled himself from the lineup. As captain, he took the lineup card to the umpires, as usual, but Ellsworth “Babe” Dahlgren was listed at first base. The Briggs Stadium announcer informed fans, “Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Gehrig’s consecutive streak of 2,130 games played has ended.”
After six days of testing at Mayo Clinic, doctors confirmed a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). On June 21, the New York Yankees announced Gehrig’s retirement from baseball. After some push from the public for a recognition day in Gehrig’s honor, the Yankees proclaimed July 4, 1939 “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” at Yankee Stadium. More than 62,000 fans attended, and Gehrig’s number 4 was retired during the ceremony. When the time came for Gehrig to speak, he delivered a speech that, to this day, continues to stir the hearts of baseball fans all over.
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 might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.
– Lou Gehrig
Lou Gehrig was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on December 7, 1939 in a special elected held by the Baseball Writers Association.