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70 years later, Gehrigs legacy lives
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Forsyth County News
“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.”

So began the most famous speech in baseball history, Lou Gehrig’s farewell address, delivered before a capacity crowd of 61,808 on July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium.

This Saturday, on the 70th anniversary of Gehrig’s speech, baseball will honor his memory. During the seventh inning stretch at every game, Gehrig’s speech will be recited.

The program is part of a campaign being conducted by major league baseball in conjunction with four non-profit organizations in the fight to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS. Even more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“We are honored and pleased to have the opportunity to join these four important organizations in an attempt to make progress in the fight against ALS, a disease associated with one of the greatest players in baseball history,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.

“Lou Gehrig displayed tremendous courage and strength in the face of debilitating illness, and his speech 70 years ago still stands as one of the defining moments in baseball history.”

Here’s how Gehrig biographer Ray Robinson described the speech in Columbia, the magazine of Columbia University, Gehrig’s alma mater:

“Gehrig’s words have been acclaimed, without sarcasm, as baseball’s Gettysburg Address. The event itself must be accorded sport’s most agonizing spectacle.”

The July 4th celebration of Gehrig’s career came only two months after his famous streak of 2,130 consecutive games played ended. James P. Dawson described the streak’s end this way in a Special to the New York Times datelined Detroit, May 2, 1939: “Lou Gehrig’s matchless record for uninterrupted play in American League championship games, stretched over 15 years and through 2,130 straight contests, came to an end today.

“With the consent of manager Joe McCarthy, Gehrig removed himself because he, better than anybody else perhaps, recognized his competitive decline, and was frankly aware of the fact he was doing the Yankees no good defensively or on the attack.”

Fred Rice was an usher at Briggs Stadium that day. As he recalled for Knight-Ridder 10 years ago, “I remember it just like it was yesterday.
Gehrig muffed a few balls at first during infield practice, threw down his glove in disgust, and walked off the field.”

He never played again.

Within two months, he had been diagnosed with ALS. He died on June 2, 1941 — 17 days before his 38th birthday.

The devastation wreaked by ALS has never been portrayed more vividly than by its effect on baseball’s Iron Horse.

Upon leaving the Yankees lineup, Gehrig had amassed a pile of impressive records. Besides the consecutive games played mark, he had also played in 100 games for 14 consecutive seasons, amassed 12 years playing in 150 games, scored 100 runs 13 years in a row, drove in 100 runs in 13 seasons, and logged 300 total bases in 13 seasons.

He also set the record for career grand slams that still stands, with 23. He still holds the American League season record for runs batted in, with 184 in 1931. And he compiled a lifetime batting average of .340.

You simply can’t review his career numbers without your jaw dropping. By any standard, Gehrig remains the best first baseman ever to play the game.

But Gehrig had his own way of measuring how well he played. As he told Quentin Reynolds in 1935, “In the beginning, I used to make one terrible play a game. Then I got so I’d make one a week, and finally I’d pull a bad one about once a month. Now, I’m trying to keep it down to one a season.”

Yet, for all his baseball accomplishments, Gehrig appreciated his place in the hearts of fans. He related this story to Jack Sher shortly before he died: “You have to get knocked down to realize how people really feel about you. I’ve realized that more than ever lately.

“The other day, I was on my way to the car. It was hailing, the streets were slippery, and I was having a tough time of it. I came to a corner and started to slip.

“But before I could fall, four people jumped out of nowhere to help me. When I thanked them, they all said they knew about my illness and had been keeping an eye on me.”

As great a ballplayer as Gehrig was, his lasting legacy remains his farewell speech, and his dignity and courage in facing ALS.

Chris Pendergast has battled ALS for 16 years. As he told Robinson recently, “He taught me that the human spirit can transcend any affliction. 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.”

“Gehrig didn’t feel sorry for himself,” Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf told Mark Bowman of “He lived up to who he is. He was an American hero. That’s why his farewell speech will always be known.”