On July 4, 1939, between games of a doubleheader, the Yankees honored Lou Gehrig. That was 70 years ago today.
The great slugger, who had quit the game the previous April because of a mysterious illness we now know as ALS, had his number 4 retired and was presented with a number of gifts he was too weak to hold.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia spoke to the crowd of 61,808. The Iron Horse, he said, was “the greatest prototype of good sportsmanship and citizenship.”
Then Gehrig himself spoke, giving what is considered the greatest speech in baseball history:
“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 17 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 may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
Gehrig died less than two years later. He spent his final days as a parole officer in New York City.
It’s almost impossible to describe how great Gehrig was. He hit .340 with a .447 on-base percentage and a .632 slugging percentage for his career. He had 1,190 extra-base hits in 2,164 games and drew 1,508 walks. He is third all-time in OPS behind Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. In 17 seasons he racked up 493 homers, 2721 hits, 1995 RBI, and 1888 runs. Had he stayed healthy the Iron Horse those numbers probably would have increased to 500+ homers, 3000+ hits, and over 2000 RBI and runs scored. The man won two MVPs, and was the Yankees captain from 1935 until his death in 1941. There was no Yankee captain until Thurman Munson in 1976. That’s how revered Gehrig was to the franchise.
The Yankees will remember one of their greatest players today with a video tribute that includes current players reciting portions of his speech. The players will wear a “4ALS” patch and the No. 4 will be on first base. The Yankees also will contribute $25,000 to the ALS Association of Greater New York.