Sandomir: Words to remember from Lou Gehrig

From Richard Sandomir at Sports on Earth on July 2, 2014:

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.

Fans could see that he was thinner and weaker than he had been the previous season. He had pulled himself permanently from the Yankees lineup in early May, unable to perform at a professional level. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was laying waste to him. He wore his pinstripes, but his uniform was too baggy even for the era; he had lost weight and almost certainly muscle tone. Yankees president Ed Barrow led him onto the field and then left him to walk on his own, which pleased Gehrig’s wife Eleanor, who watched from a box seat. As the ceremonies crept toward the speech, Gehrig initially was too moved to speak. Manager Joe McCarthy nudged him to the bank of microphones.

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Originally published: July 2, 2014. Last Updated: July 2, 2014.