‘The Luckiest Man’: Remembering Lou Gehrig 75 years after the Yankee great's death

On this date, 75 years ago—in 1941—at 10:10 p.m. in a house located at 5204 Delafield Avenue in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, N.Y., a 37-year-old man died. This man died from a disease that robbed him of the ability to move, to run, to walk. He had suffered from it for about two years or so; it stole from him what mattered most to him: his livelihood and his avocation. The disease that ravaged him stole his gifts in the way an agile ballplayer stole bases, quickly and swiftly. Eventually, ironically and cruelly, the disease that claimed him in the end was named after him.

He died as he lived, quietly and with dignity. And when he died, not only did a whole neighborhood grieve, but a sports-mad city did as well. Indeed, one didn’t have to like baseball to suddenly stop and give pause to reflect not only on the man who was considered a great ballplayer but on the greatness of the man himself. That man was Lou Gehrig, who wore the legendary number 4 of the legendary New York Yankees.

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He had a storied athletic career and his numerous feats on the ball field earned him the nickname “The Iron Horse.” When the onset of A.L.S. came upon him, he had earned the record of 2,130 consecutive games played without interruption. (It was a record that held until Sept. 6, 1995, when Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it.) Thanks to his sturdy physical build and even sturdier determination, he never let up even when he suffered way too many injuries, especially to the head in those pre-helmet wearing days.

He was the son of German immigrants, born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan and had lived at 2266 Amsterdam Avenue, in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, attending local schools. Like other boys of his time he played all kinds of sports in all kinds of weather and swam in the East River when no one was looking.

His was a life of twists and turns, ironies and joys, sorrow and suffering: He was the second of four children; two sisters died from whooping cough and the measles and a brother died in infancy, leaving young Lou as the only surviving child. He was meant for something, if his birth weight indicated anything: He weighed a hefty 14 pounds. Physically, he resembled his mother and she made quite sure that the child that was left survived: She fed him food and grits (not of the gastronomical one, but of the psychological kind). 

He had enrolled in Columbia University and attended for two years, with the intent of majoring in engineering; but baseball beckoned and the rest of his academic career was sent to the bleachers. (His parents were slow to understand and appreciate his gifts, but once they did, they were his greatest backers, along with the love of his life, his wife, Eleanor.)

Originally, he attended Columbia on a football scholarship; athletically, he was ambidextrous, but it was baseball that claimed him. On June 26, 1920, while playing for his high school baseball team (Commerce) in Chicago’s Cub Park (and before 10,000 assembled fans), he blasted a grand-slam homer, unheard of for a 17-year-old, thereby engendering the first public notice of the future baseball star. And while playing for Columbia University, it was no different: on April 28, 1923, he belted a 450-foot homer out of South Field, where it eventually landed out at 116th Street and Broadway. Two days later, on April 30, 1923, he signed with the New York Yankees, an association that would last for the rest of his life.

When he realized he could no longer play, he made the toughest decision: to bow out of the game he loved. If he could no longer give it his all, he felt that he had to step aside. Being the captain of the Yankees, he felt he owed a good example to his teammates and to the many fans who showed up at the ballpark for each and every game.

It was decided that a farewell ceremony (“Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”) would be the fitting thing to do to honor the man who was a part of so many memorable Yankee teams and in terms of affection, second only to the Babe himself. So, on July 4, 1939, Henry Louis Gehrig stepped up to the plate one last time and spoke words from the heart that still reverberate, even now. 

It’s worth quoting in full:  

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 the 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 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 that 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've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.
 

Seventy-five years is a long time; people—especially sports figures—come and go. Why bother to remember such long-ago events or people long faded from historical or popular memory? Why not? We ought to, because Lou Gehrig is worthy of remembering in a jaded age when fame and fortune seem to mean more than personal integrity, honesty and rectitude, values and traits that are nowadays just words in a dusty dictionary on an unused reference shelf.

Lou Gehrig was no showman or outsized personality in the way Babe Ruth was (as much as the fans liked him). No: He was unusual for his time, his place and his profession in that he took pride (of the non-vainglorious type) in what he was and what he did. (Even Hollywood recognized how special he was: Gehrig would be commemorated in the sentimentally popular movie with Gary Cooper in the starring role: 1942's “The Pride of the Yankees.”)

He gave everything and everyone his respect and their due. The personal and professional lessons of his life went beyond baseball: He showed how to be an authentic human being, and that is why he is so important today. Lou Gehrig’s life story ought to be a primer for anyone in any profession, whether it be in athletics or even politics. Integrity and authenticity can never be faked and can never be bought: It can only be lived.

No wonder everyone in Yankee Stadium, from home plate right up to the rafters, cried that day.

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