Wanted to share Richard Sandomir’s terrific story for Sports on Earth on the most famous speech in sports: Lou Gehrig’s 4th of July address at Yankee Stadium in 1939.
Faced with a cruel fate, baseball’s “Iron Man” gave thanks in a speech that still resonates 75 years later, and will forever.
When Lou Gehrig delivered his “luckiest man” speech on July 4, 1939, his oratorical skills were unknown. He could transform the mood of a stadium with his bat, but what could he do with words to convey the end of his career, if not his life? He lacked the magnetism of the man-child Babe Ruth, whose Brobdingnagian personality captivated the press and fans. Gehrig was an introverted mama’s boy, so lacking in charisma that writer Niven Busch had declared, in a 1929 New Yorker profile, that Gehrig was “not fitted in any way to have a public.”
Yet in fewer than 300 words, Gehrig transformed how the public viewed him. No longer a magnificent ballplayer, he was a dying young man, grateful for his life, not complaining about his limited future. He gave them the essential Gehrig: no different than the decent man he had always been, but now faced with altered circumstances. He did not sound like a professional speaker. He lacked a baritone like Gary Cooper, his doppelganger in The Pride of the Yankees, which made Gehrig’s speech so much more effective. Gehrig simultaneously became a symbol of courage and the soul of the Yankees’ cold-as-steel empire. Had he died in 1971, not 1941, he would have been recalled for his statistics and humility. But by offering nothing but gratitude, for a life that would end two years later, days before his 38th birthday, he was canonized a sports saint.
Later, Sandomir writes:
The speech has been dubbed, with some hyperbole, “baseball’s Gettysburg address.” The connection to Lincoln is strained, perhaps, but the speech is still so good and so concise that it suggests a ghostwriter, perhaps a pal like Fred Lieb of the Sporting News. There are many nice touches, and there is nothing hackneyed. Gehrig spoke of “grand men,” “that wonderful fellow” and “that smart student of psychology.” Three sentences begin with “When you have,” emphasizing his message through parallel structure. Notice the short phrases that followed the dash in five sentences: “that’s something,” “it’s a blessing” and “that’s the finest I know.” By breaking up each thought, he let his thankfulness linger, as if he were punctuating those thoughts with a “Wow!” In the last sentence, he returned to his misfortune, elevating his disease to a “tough break” yet still minimizing its severity.
“The speech resonates, because it speaks to everyone who has suffered illness or lost a loved one,” said Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, a 2005 biography. “Gehrig says we shouldn’t think about ourselves and whatever troubles we might have. Instead, we should think about all the good fortunes we’ve had in life. To die is to lose everything, everyone we’ve loved, but he looks at it from another angle and says death helps him see all he has been blessed with — his family, his friends, his teammates, his career. He chooses life. He chooses optimism.”
Sandomir also details Gary Cooper’s version of the speech in Pride of the Yankees.
One night in Port Moresby, New Guinea, he was dozing in his tent when a cloudburst threatened to cancel the night’s show. But 15,000 troops were waiting on a muddy slope. So Cooper, Merkel and Brooks headed to the stage covered with canvas tarps, along with accordionist Andy Arcari. When they finished their act, a soldier shouted, “Hey, Coop, how about Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech to the Yankees?” The soldiers had recently seen Pride, so it was not a surprise that more troops demanded he play the Iron Horse again.
“The boys began to shout in union for the farewell speech,” he said. He asked that they let him step inside a tent, to give him time to remember the speech as well as he could. “I don’t want to leave out anything,” he said he told them. As he jotted down the words, a tent pole slipped, and rain poured down his neck. Finally, with the speech done, he came out and recited it. “It was a silent bunch that listened to it,” he wrote.