Looking Back at Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day

July 4, 1939: Gehrig’s Famous Speech

On Tuesday, July 4, 1939, close to 80 years ago, the New York Yankees and the Washington Senators played a doubleheader on a Sunday afternoon. A crowd of almost 62,000 were on hand, but they weren’t there as much for the game as they were to show their love and regard for one of the greatest Yankees of all time—Lou Gehrig.

The day was officially called “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.” It is the day on which Gehrig bravely addressed the crowd, in what is often called “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech.

Here are 10 interesting facts about that day and the events surrounding it:

1. Only three months had passed between Lou’s last professional game and Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. Gehrig had played in his last game on April 30th, flying out to center field in his final at-bat. A few days later, on May 2nd, he took himself out of the lineup before the start of the game.

2. The idea for a “Lou Gehrig day” had started with sportswriters who spread the idea. Someone had suggested it take place during the All-Star Game (which was coming up), but Yankees Team President Ed Barrow didn’t want Lou to have to share the spotlight. Barrow was the one who decided on July 4th being Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.

3. Only two weeks earlier, Barrow had told the media that Lou Gehrig could no longer play baseball. On June 19, 1939 (Gehrig’s 36th birthday), the doctors had confirmed the diagnosis of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). However, the doctors had also used the words “infantile paralysis” and “chronic poliomyelitis,” which weren’t wholly accurate. Due to the confusion, many people didn’t know that Lou’s illness would be fatal in a few years.

4. Although no one ever wore Gehrig’s number 4 again after he stopped playing, his number was not retired that July 4th, as many people think. That announcement was made by Barrow not long after Lou was inducted into the Hall of Fame, on December 7, 1939. The election committee had waived the rules to have Lou inducted.

5. On that July 4th day, when the first game of the doubleheader was over (the Yankees lost, 3-2), the field was quickly transformed for the upcoming ceremony. The teams took their place between the third and first baselines, in the infield, facing home plate. The 1927 Yankees team were also there, and so was Wally Pipp, whom Gehrig had replaced years before. Barrow walked alongside Lou as they came onto the field, to ensure he made it without incident.

 6. There were only a few men who spoke that July 4th day before Lou himself addressed the fans: They were New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Postmaster General James Farley, Yankees Manager Joe McCarthy, and Babe Ruth. McCarthy said:

“Lou, what can I say except that it was a sad day in the life of everybody who knew you when you came to my hotel room that day in Detroit and told me you were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God, man, you were never that.”

Babe Ruth told the crowd, “In 1927, Lou was with us, and I say that was the greatest ball club the Yankees ever had.” He was referring to the ’27 Yankees, which featured Murderers’ Row.

7. Lou received a variety of gifts that day, most of which were put at his feet as he stood near the home plate area, where several microphones were set up. In addition to a fishing rod and tackle, the Yankees team presented Lou with a trophy (McCarthy handed it to him) with the names of the Yankees players inscribed on one side and a poem written by a New York Times writer on the other side. The poem reads:

“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”

According to baseball-almanac.com, the trophy is on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

8. Gehrig had not wanted to speak. In fact, he had more or less dreaded the day as it approached. He was a strong and quiet man and had handled all the events with quiet dignity. All the attention being bestowed on him that day was almost more than he could handle. Looking at pictures from that day, you can see how anyone in his position might have felt isolated…even with all his adoring fans, friends and teammates there. When he first walked onto the field for the ceremony, he avoided all eye contact. As described in the best-selling biography “Luckiest Man” by Jonathan Eig, Gehrig…

“…looked as if he couldn’t wait to get it over with. He twisted his baseball cap in his hands. He pawed at the dirt with his cleats. He removed a big white handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his tears. He shifted his weight from left to right and stared at the ground.”

9. When all the speeches were finished, the master of ceremonies waited for Gehrig to step up to the microphones. The crowd was chanting, “We want Lou! We want Lou!” But Gehrig shook his head no, feeling overwhelmed by the moment. But Joe McCarthy approached Lou and quietly urged him to speak. Gehrig, who greatly admired McCarthy, obeyed his manager and approached the microphones.

There is no recording of Gehrig’s entire speech, and you can find only small portions of it in newsreel clips.
 10. But there is something perplexing about it all. When you read the transcript of the speech on many websites, it is inaccurate. The text often does not match the newsreel footage in a few key areas.

Here is the transcript of the speech (as it appears in most sources), with Gehrig’s actual spoken words from that day in bold, taken from the only newsreel clips of that day:

“For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. (Note: Gehrig pronounces it ‘brag.’) 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.

“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 this 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 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 have an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”

A week later, on July 11th, he was the honorary captain for the American League team in the 1939 All-Star Game.

Less than two years later, on June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig passed away.

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