WASHINGTON, July 4, 2013 — Certain speeches deserve to be emblazoned in museums and the memorials of our minds.
One, of course, is the Gettysburg Addresswhich President Abraham Lincoln delivered four months after the decisive battle, which raged for three days this week in 1863. He was wrong only in saying that the world would little note nor long remember what he said in the dedication of this final resting place “for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” In reality, it is one of the best remembered speeches in American history.
But there are others. One of the most memorable was spoken by a sports hero.
Two columns ago we recalled the ending of the baseball career of the great Babe Ruth. Now, on this Independence Day, it’s time to think of the Babe’s longtime teammate, Lou Gehrig.
From that day in June 1925, when Lou Gehrig first took his place in the New York Yankees lineup, he would go on to play 2,130 consecutive games.
Quickly he established himself as one of the premier ballplayers of all time and perhaps the greatest first baseman ever. He set numerous baseball records, some of which still stand today.
His last game was in Yankee Stadium against the Washington Senators on April 30, 1939. Then, on May 2, 1939, in Detroit before a Tigers series, Gehrig, as captain of the New York Yankees, held the clipboard in his hand when he walked to the water fountain and took a drink. Anyone seeing moisture on his cheeks could easily have thought it was from an errant spurt of water.
Why Lou Gherig Quit
The man called, “the Iron Horse of Baseball” then strolled to the umpire behind the plate and handed him the starting lineup card. The ump looked at it, then looked again, then looked at Lou. The expression on the player’s face was unmistakable. The consecutive games record was ended.
Would the great Yankee rest a game or two and return to the lineup? the umpire had to wonder. Gehrig himself, however, knew the answer. Just eight games into the new season, his playing days were over. He had been diagnosed with a degenerative illness called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Two months later, on July 4, 1939, this outstanding player and man stood before 60,000 cheering yet somber fans in Yankee Stadium. There he delivered a resounding tribute to the game of baseball, to its players and managers, and to its fans.
To list this Hall of Famer’s on-field achievements would be like trying to prove the obvious. We need not mention his career batting average of .340 or that he once knocked out four homers in one game.
Instead, we recall here the measure of the man. When the news of his illness became known, baseball fans and people who had never seen a ballgame were saddened. Some fans were ashamed for having booed him when he occasionally booted a groundball, or swung under a ball right across the plate as his batting average dipped to numbers not associated with Lou Gehrig. Some even thought he just wasn’t trying hard enough.
When he awoke, that May 2 morning, he had decided: It was over. No, not because of the boos. He could take disapproval. It was the applause. A ground ball had been hit down the first base line. In times past, Lou would have — as the baseball saying went —“caught the ball in his back pocket.” This time, however, he two-handed it into his mitt and stepped on first base to get the runner out. Then came the applause
That’s what did it. He thought about it that night. He came to the conclusion that it was time. When you get applause for handling an easy-out groundball, it’s time.
The Farewell Speech
A couple of months later came Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium. Many kind words were said about the great man and superlative ballplayer. Babe Ruth was there to embrace him. Then Lou himself took to the microphone.
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got,” he began. “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
“So, I close in saying,” he ended, “that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”
Lou Gehrig died two years later on June 2, 1941. But he will never be gone from the memories, hearts, or respect of the American people. And wherever the game of baseball is played or discussed, “the Iron Horse of Baseball” will register high on that list. He was “the pride of the Yankees.”
Babe Ruth said on an episode of “Bill Stern’s Sports Newsreel, “Lou Gehrig, don’t ever forget him.”
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.
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