“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.”
—-Baseball great Lou Gehrig, beginning his farewell speech to Yankee fans on July 4, 1939, as they filled Yankee stadium to say farewell to “the Iron Horse,” who was retiring from the game after being diagnosed with the incurable disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known forever after as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
Lou Gehrig was only 36 years old when he learned that he was dying. ALS is a terrible wasting disease that has no cure, and in 1939 there was little treatment or assistance that could be offered to a victim as his body slowly ceased to function. It is an especially cruel disease for a professional athlete to face, and even more so one, like Gehrig, who was renowned for his endurance and seemingly indestructible body. When the progress of the illness, still then undiagnosed, caused Gehrig to remove himself from the New York Yankees line-up on May 1, 1939, it ended his amazing streak of 2,130 consecutive games, a baseball record that stood until broken by Cal Ripken, 56 years later.
Gehrig’s speech was from his heart. He was an educated and articulate man, but he had not planned on speaking at the moving ceremony to bid him farewell, as current former team mates, some of the greatest players ever to take the field, gathered to pay their respects. But the Yankee Stadium crowd of more than 60,000 began chanting his name, and after initially refusing, Gehrig moved to the microphone.
Some think Gehrig’s words were ironic, or insincere, but neither is true. This man, facing the end of his life (which arrived less that two years later) far earlier than he could have anticipated, managed to retain the perspective that all of us should, but so few of us can. He had lived a wonderful life, a life that most of his fellow humans on the planet would have loved to have lived, even in its prematurely truncated form. He was born in the United States of America, with a strong body and a special talent; he was raised in a loving family, and found the love of his life, Eleanor, whom he married and who stayed by his side until the end. Gehrig also was able to spend his life playing a child’s game with the greatest team baseball has ever known, teaming with Babe Ruth to form the heart of the famous Yankee “Murderers Row” that led the team to championship after championship in the 1920’s and 30’s. He did this in front of adoring fans, and inspired countless children with his spectacular play (he was probably the best first baseman of all time), quiet dedication, and impeccable private conduct, in stark contrast to the carousing and loutishness of the team mate who often over-shadowed him, the Babe.
I recall an elderly Jacques Cousteau, the oceanic explorer, saying in an interview that he once thought he was about to drown when he was 19, and remembered concluding, just before he was rescued, that if death came then, he had no regrets, because he had lived a full and productive life. It is so hard to avoid descending into self pity and despair when the end of life seems near, and the rare few like Cousteau, Lou Gehrig and my father, who admired Gehrig and also regarded death this way, should show us all the way. It is foolish and pointless to lament what we failed to accomplish or will not have the chance to do. What matters is that the chaos of the universe conspired to give us all the opportunity to live, and that alone makes us lucky. To be able to live like Lou Gehrig did, achieve what he did, be loved as he was loved, and to have a throng, a city and a nation salute you as your life winds down, that is the definition of fortunate. Realizing that enabled Lou Gehrig to rise above his own tragedy, by refusing to see it as one. He really thought he lucky, and he was.
We all are. And we are lucky that a great dying athlete in 1939 possessed the courage and the words to remind us.
“Fans, for the past two week“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 seventeen 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 Rupert? 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.”
Spark: Washington Post