Why you should care
The Yankee legend’s unforgettable goodbye 75 years ago is even more remarkable than you thought.
“Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Most baseball fans know those 13 words by heart. Seventy-five years ago, before a crowd of over 61,000, 36-year-old New York Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig prematurely said goodbye to the game he loved after learning that he suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or, as it’s now more commonly known, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Henry Louis Gehrig, a Hall of Famer who alongside Babe Ruth formed the heart of the Yankees famous “Murderers’ Row” line-up, hated the spotlight. And yet his address on that Fourth of July in 1939 was, as The New York Times described it the next day, “as amazing a valedictory as ever came from a ball player.”
With Major League Baseball set to honor Gehrig’s memory this week, Americans will likely hear those 13 words broadcast more than once as they celebrate the holiday or even take in a ballgame. But in many ways, the context in which Gehrig’s iconic speech was given is even more moving than the baseball legend’s immortal words.
First, there was Gehrig’s rapid physical deterioration. Even though the slugger had been in the Yankees starting line-up until he took himself out on May 2 of that year (ending his record streak of 2,130 consecutive games played) and had only been diagnosed with ALS two weeks prior, Yankees officials were not sure Gehrig would have the strength to make it through the 40-minute appreciation ceremony on that muggy July afternoon.
In just a matter of months, Gehrig had gone from being the broad-shouldered “Iron Man of Baseball” — who in 1936 had been turned down for the role of Tarzan because his legs were too muscular — to batting .143 and struggling to put on his uniform. And as Gehrig tried to hold back the tears that July 4, his jersey already too big for him, almost no one in the hushed Yankee Stadium could have fathomed that their mighty hero would be dead in less than two years — perhaps not even Gehrig himself.
Yankees officials were not sure Gehrig would have the strength to make it through the ceremony.
ALS was (and is) fatal and irreversible, with a life expectancy of two to five years. Yet in a letter to his wife, Eleanor, two weeks before his speech, Gehrig reported that there was a “50-50 chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years.”
Gehrig made a similar “50-50” claim to his teammates, and the official letter provided by doctors to team officials surprisingly made no mention of the condition’s lethal course. As a result, reporters and fans alike assumed Gehrig’s “bad break” was merely that he was suffering from an “infantile paralysis” that would force him to retire from baseball and lose his muscular coordination over a span of years.
Eleanor would force the doctors to give her a more realistic assessment, and later claimed that she colluded with them over the next two years to keep her husband in the dark about his true condition. In her autobiography, she said that Gehrig, like his fans, was unaware of the real prognosis both before and after his famous speech.
But Gehrig may have just been putting on a brave face for his wife as well. While his doctors at the Mayo Clinic undoubtedly tried to inflate his hopes of beating ALS, they were experts on the disease and, as Jonathan Eig argues in his recent Gehrig biography, Luckiest Man , would almost certainly not have concealed the truth from their patient. More likely, Gehrig was trying to remain his stoic, optimistic self while shielding his wife and others from his grim prospects.
This was, after all, a man who had played through countless injuries for 13 straight years without missing a game: When doctors X-rayed his hands near the end of his career, they found 17 different fractures that had healed while Gehrig played on.
Gehrig’s legendary endurance would not save him, but his fortitude is still felt today. As Eig puts it so eloquently, “ALS is a disease of weakness, but Lou Gehrig’s disease is associated with strength — the strength of a stricken man who said he felt lucky.”
Watch a clip from Gehrig’s farewell below, and honor him by making a donation to the ALS Association to help support research to find a cure for ALS.