He will always be the Iron Horse of baseball, a humble and classy person, perhaps the greatest player of his generation, if Lou Gehrig wasn’t overshadowed by the towering stature of Babe Ruth.
It’s not just the 2,130 straight games played, the .340 lifetime average, 1,995 career RBIs, 493 HRs, twice MVP of the American League, Triple Crown winner in 1934 or because he was the first player to hit four homeruns in a single game. No what’s most impressive about Lou Gehrig were the 277-words he spoke at Yankees Stadium on July 4, 1939 — only 36-years-old and two years shy of his death.
“He taught me that the human spirit can transcend any affliction,” said Chris Pendergast, a former schoolteacher in Miller Place, N.Y., who has battled A.L.S. for more than 16 years. Communicating through his wife, Pendergast said: “I am now a quadriplegic, using a feeding tube and an external ventilator for part of the day. But with Lou as a model, I still feel I have an awful lot to live for.”
Those who face other challenges have also found inspiration in Gehrig’s life. Joshua Prager, a journalist and author, sustained a disabling spinal cord injury in a 1990 bus accident when he was 19. Prager, who wrote “The Echoing Green,” about Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run at the Polo Grounds, said he admired Gehrig before the accident. In time, his appreciation of Gehrig, who like Prager attended Columbia University, grew deeper.
“In the face of death, he remained defiant,” Prager said. “He hated any maudlin displays, and as he said in his July 4 speech, he still considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
In honor of Mr. Gehrig, MLB will read his speech during the seventh inning stretch next Saturday, July 4. It will be 70 years to the day.
“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.
“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 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 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.”
We could all learn something from those words.