- Steve Wulf, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
- 0 Shares
He almost didn't say anything.
The place was home plate at Yankee Stadium. The day was July 4, 1939. The weather was steamy.
And the circumstances were heart-breaking.
The New York Yankees were honoring Lou Gehrig between games of a doubleheader with the Washington Senators just two short months after the greatest first baseman in the history of baseball found out that it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that had robbed him of his physical abilities. The Stadium was packed with 61,000 fans as members of the '27 Yankees and his current teammates fanned out in the infield.
There were speeches from such dignitaries as New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy and Gehrig's old friend, Babe Ruth. There were gifts galore: a fishing rod and reel from his teammates, candlesticks from the rival New York Giants, a smoking stand from the writers, a silver platter from the stadium vendors. At one point, Gehrig had to put down a trophy because it was too heavy for him.
The stadium was draped in bunting -- but also in a feeling woven from appreciation and guilt, gratitude and sadness.
When the tributes were finished, the 36-year-old Gehrig nearly walked away. He had prepared remarks, but he wasn't prepared for his own emotions. Naturally shy to begin with, he stared at the ground and wiped away tears with a handkerchief he kept in his back pocket. As fans shouted, "We want Lou!" Sid Mercer, the sportswriter who served as master of ceremonies, told the crowd that Larrupin' Lou was too moved to speak.
But then McCarthy put his hand on Gehrig's back and whispered in his ear, as if he were giving his first baseman some last-minute instructions before taking the field. With that, Gehrig approached the microphones, ran his right hand through his hair, took a deep breath and began to speak without notes:
"For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Sportswriter Paul Gallico would write, "The clangy, iron echo of the Yankee stadium, picked up the sentence that poured from the loud speakers and hurled it forth into the world ... 'The luckiest man on the face of the earth ... luckiest man on the face of the earth ... luckiest man ... '"
He got the echo right.
As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of what has been called baseball's Gettysburg Address, it's important to note the differences between what Gehrig said that day and the speech given by Gary Cooper, the actor who played Gehrig in the 1942 movie, "The Pride of The Yankees." (You'll find a side-by-side look at both speeches here.)
Take the most famous line of the speech: "... the luckiest man on the face of the earth." It came at the very beginning of Gehrig's speech, but for dramatic effect, it's at the end of Cooper's. And, for whatever reason, the movie screenwriters changed, "I have been in ballparks for seventeen years," to, "I have been walking onto ballfields for sixteen years."
It's also interesting to note that while Gary Cooper thanks "my friends, the sportswriters," Gehrig himself makes no mention of the men who sometimes treated him less than kindly. (Even after the ALS diagnosis, one of them wrote, "Personally, I don't care what Gehrig's got ... I'd like to exchange my body for his during the next 40 or 50 years.")
That bow to the sportswriters probably owes something to Gallico, who wrote the treatment for the movie, as well as the book of the same name, which also came out in 1942, a year after Gehrig's death.
But those discrepancies aren't that big a deal. What is significant is that the actual Farewell Address, just like the actual man, had more depth and dignity than the movie version. It's longer -- 277 words to 169 -- and more representative of the sensitive, complicated, thoughtful person that Gehrig was.
Yes, he was the noble Iron Horse, the man who played in 2,130 straight games, averaged 147 RBIs a year from 1926 to 1938 and stole home 15 times. But he was also an odd mix of insecurity and confidence, a tightwad capable of great generosity, an alternately affable and moody man who refused to wear an overcoat. He was a so-called momma's boy, but he knew when to switch his devotion to the woman with whom he fell in love. He could write beautiful letters and would cry when his wife Eleanor read him "Anna Karenina." He once entered his German shepherd, Alfra of Cosalta, in the Westminster Kennel Club Show (winning a reserve ribbon), and he even played the lead in a Western movie called "Rawhide."
Ironically enough, a few years after Hollywood asked this baseball player to play a cowboy, a cowboy actor was asked to play him in a movie. The MGM mogul Samuel Goldwyn didn't much like or appreciate baseball, but he agreed to make "The Pride of the Yankees" after his story editor, Niven Busch, showed him newsreel footage of Gehrig's speech. "Run it again," Goldwyn reportedly said, wiping away tears.
When it came time to make the movie, though, Goldwyn and director Sam Wood overrode the objections of both the film editor, Danny Mandell, and Eleanor Gehrig, and changed Gehrig's words. Eleanor, who was paid $30,000 for the rights to the story, implored Goldwyn: "I feel if you should depart from the original you would lose all of the simple charm."
Both Cooper and Teresa Wright, who played Eleanor and later married Niven Busch, were nominated for Academy Awards; and the film remains hugely popular to this day, in large part because the doctored speech seldom fails to make grownups weep. Cooper even got standing ovations when he recited it on a USO Tour during World War II.
But it's a shame that the movie version, complete with the real Babe Ruth in the background, has eclipsed the actual speech in the public consciousness. That's partly because only a small snippet of the newsreel footage, only four sentences, has survived. (You can see some of it here.)
Fortunately, in its 75th anniversary tribute to Gehrig showing at ballparks this week, Major League Baseball chose to preserve the original. They filmed various first basemen reciting Gehrig's words, but they saved the last, best lines -- words that Cooper never spoke -- for a shortstop: Derek Jeter, Gehrig's spiritual and professional descendant.
In that newsreel footage, you can also detect something else the movie ignored: Gehrig's thick New York accent.
For his entire life of 37 years, Lou never strayed far from Manhattan or The Bronx. He was born of German parents in the Yorkville section on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the only one of their three children to survive beyond infancy. The Gehrigs then moved to Washington Heights, at the northern tip of Manhattan, a jumping-off point from which young Lou would swim across the Hudson to New Jersey. By the time he got to Commerce High, he was already a legend in his neighborhood.
Christina Gehrig became the cook for a fraternity house at nearby Columbia University, which recruited Lou to play football. That, Lou did, quite well. But it was baseball at which he really excelled. Though the Giants' John McGraw wasn't all that impressed with him, Yankees scout Paul Krichell was, and so began a relationship between a man and a team that endures to this day.
In his superb biography, "Luckiest Man," author Jonathan Eig wrote that Gehrig was as emblematic of the Yankees as the "handsome trim that haloed the grandstand." Indeed, the frieze of workaday professionalism and surpassing excellence that defines the franchise really started with Gehrig, and for that reason -- not to mention the string of World Series titles they won together -- he is arguably the finest athlete New York City has ever produced. Local Boy Makes Great.
After the 1927 season, when Gehrig hit .373 with 47 home runs and 173 RBIs, the Yankees raised his salary from $8,000 a year to $25,000, so he bought his parents a home in New Rochelle, north along the train line in Westchester County. He called it "the proudest moment of my life," and that's where he lived until he met Eleanor Twitchell, a flapper type from Chicago who cut the formidable Ma Gehrig's apron strings.
Forced to arbitrate between them in a fight over wedding arrangements as the 1933 season wound down, Gehrig took an interesting way out: He called the Mayor of New Rochelle and had him come over to the apartment Eleanor was readying for their life together. This is Eleanor's description of the impromptu nuptials in the charming 1976 memoir she wrote with Joseph Durso, "My Luke and I:"
"The carpet-layers, the plumbers, the janitor, the cops, the coatless groom, the besmudged bride and the aproned attendants all stood rigid ... as Mayor Otto intoned the words that made this unlikely couple man and wife."
A few years later, after 615 more straight games, another 616 RBIs and the 1937 World Series title, Gehrig got another bump in salary, so he and Eleanor decided to move into a new apartment house that had just been built in Larchmont, the village north of New Rochelle. In a newspaper interview later in her life, Eleanor recalled the day Lou came home to the newly furnished apartment: "I went all out and decorated wall to wall. He said, 'My God, you know I might be traded at any moment.' He wasn't pleased at all."
Larchmont was something of a Yankee retreat. Waite Hoyt, the Hall of Fame pitcher, owned a funeral home there, and the players often gathered at the Loyal Inn on Boston Post Road at the New Rochelle border. Ed Barrow, the bushy-browed president of the Yankees, also lived in Larchmont, and he would have the players come out to his house on a designated day in the offseason to sign their contracts -- a school holiday for the kids who wanted to get the autographs of Ruth and Gehrig and their teammates.
The Gehrigs' apartment house, the Stonecrest, is a stately, faux medieval fortress that still seems fit for the gallant Iron Horse. I know because I walk by it on my way to and from the train station. When I was coaching in the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Little League, I would sometimes soothe a crying player by telling him or her that it was OK -- Lou Gehrig cried during games, too.
Every once in a while, I imagined what life in Larchmont was like for the Gehrigs, who lived there in the crucial years of 1938 and 1939. Did they ever walk by our house, which is up the hill from the Stonecrest? Did they play tennis, as our kids did, in Memorial Park across the street? Did they enjoy their time there, coming as it did at the end of his baseball career?
They were certainly in love there. In "My Luke and I," Eleanor describes a scene that was used in the movie: a brief argument they had when she tried to talk him out of playing in his 2,000th straight game -- she thought 1,999 would be a more memorable stopping point. Before he walked out the door to go to the Stadium that day, she told him, "All they'll do is hang a horseshoe of flowers around your neck."
Six hours later, Gehrig poked his head in the door, a smile on his face and a horseshoe of flowers around his neck. "I charged him," Eleanor wrote, "hugged him, wrestled him and the horseshoe of flowers to the floor, pounded him, got pounded in return, tearing at him and the blossoms both, laughing and shrieking and ... plucking the flowers off the framework one by one and pelting each other with them."
Shortly thereafter, Gehrig began to show signs he was slowing down. He put up decent numbers in the '38 season -- .295, 29 home runs, 114 RBIs -- but teammates could see he was not the same. The Yankees won yet another title, and Barrow asked him over to his house one night in the offseason to negotiate a new contract. But he couldn't hit a lick that spring and began stumbling. After eight games of the '39 season, he was hitting .143 with no power, and the Gehrigs knew something was terribly wrong. In their Larchmont apartment on May 1, the day before a trip to Detroit, they decided the time was right for him to take himself out of the lineup.
On May 3, the day after the streak ended, Gehrig wrote this to Eleanor: "I broke just before the game because of thoughts of you -- not because I didn't know you are the bravest kind of partner, but because my inferiority grabbed me and made me wonder and ponder if I could possibly prove myself worthy of you."
Eleanor made arrangements for him to visit the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. That's where it was discovered he had ALS, an invidious, progressive disease that attacks the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal chord. The news spread fast, sometimes wrongly, and the weekly Larchmont Times ran this item below the headline, "Neighbors Figure In Sad News," and two photographs:
Edward G. Barrow (left) of 6 Howard Street, president of the New York Yankees, revealed the shocking news yesterday to all baseball lovers that Lou Gehrig (right) of the Stonecrest Apartments, Chatsworth Avenue, is through as a player. Barrow read the Mayor [sic] Clinic report that Neighbor Gehrig is suffering from a mild form of chronic infantile paralysis, which has slowed him down considerably afield.
Some 75 years after boys waited outside Ed Barrow's house to get Gehrig's autograph, a 10-year-old boy from Larchmont named Grant Tucker decided to remember Gehrig in a different way. At the suggestion of his Murray Avenue School librarian, Pamela Tannenbaum, he researched the life of Gehrig for a history project.
"What I tried to do was create a scrapbook of his life the way Eleanor would," says Grant, now a seventh grader. "The more research and reading I did, the more he became my hero."
With the help of his parents, he retraced Gehrig's path. He researched his Columbia years at the university archives. He found a copy of his marriage certificate in the County Clerk's Office in White Plains, as well as a canceled check Gehrig made out to the Mayo Clinic. He visited his former residences. He even talked with the third-generation proprietor of I.B. Cohen's, a clothing store in New Rochelle that sold suits to Gehrig -- as well as to Ruth, Joe Louis and Norman Rockwell.
That's why when you Google "Larchmont and Lou Gehrig," the third item that comes up is a 2011 story about the prize presented to Grant Tucker by the New York State Commissioner of Education John B. King Jr. for excellence in student research. (Grant has graciously shared his project with ESPN.com. You can read it here.)
Says Grant, "What I learned from the project is that even though you might be given a bad hand in life, you can still go out and do something good."
The echo is carrying still.
Curiosity got the best of me, so I called an old friend who lives in the Stonecrest, and she put me in touch with the woman who lives in the Gehrigs' old apartment. A person whose job it is to help others, she graciously offered to show me around the spacious one-bedroom, complete with a porch that looks out on Memorial Park.
It's a lovely place, full of life and art, and not some mausoleum dedicated to the past. But that didn't stop me from thinking about all the scenes that played out there. (In an unconscious bow to Gehrig, there were copies of "Western Horseman" magazine on a side table.)
This was where they threw flowers at one another. But it was also where they made the decision to stop playing, where they took the bad news from the Mayo Clinic, where Lou jotted down notes for his speech, where he returned, exhausted and relieved, after the July 4 ceremony.
And this was where the most noble chapter in that noble man's life started -- a chapter the movie left out.
Gehrig spent the rest of the '39 season in limbo, traveling to the Mayo Clinic, seeing doctors, hanging around the Yankees as they won another World Series, dropping in on the kids at the Larchmont Day Camp. He could have parlayed his fame, and his speech, into a lucrative second career as Lou Gehrig, Hero. He could have put his name on a restaurant for $30,000, or done paid speaking engagements.
Instead, after the end of the '39 season, he accepted Mayor LaGuardia's offer to become the commissioner of the city's parole board, a decidedly unglamorous job that paid $5,700 a year. When reporters went to talk to him in Larchmont, he said, "I'm as proud as can be. I'm up to my neck in books on penology."
As a city employee, though, he was required to live inside the city limits, so he and Eleanor moved out of Larchmont and bought a nice little house in Riverdale, along the Hudson in The Bronx. From there he drove to his office in lower Manhattan six days a week, poring over case files and interviewing miscreants to determine their release dates from jail. One of his cases, a tough from the Lower East Side named Rocco Barbella, grew up to be middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, but only after he cursed out Gehrig for sending him to reform school: "Go to hell, you bastard!"
Gehrig was facing his own sentence, of course. There was, and is, no cure for ALS. But he fought on, at first clinging to a hope that Eleanor and his doctors knew he really didn't have, and then coming to accept the inevitable. His body continued to fail him, but that didn't stop him from working, or from fighting. He sued Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News for writing a column in which he blamed the Yankees' poor 1940 season on the "polio germ" that Gehrig had introduced into the clubhouse.
He died on the evening of June 2, 1941, with his wife and parents by his bedside. Later that night, Ed Barrow and his wife, and Babe Ruth and his wife, came by to offer their condolences. At his funeral service on June 4, his Episcopal priest said there would be no eulogy: "We need none because we all knew him."
We know him as a phenomenal ballplayer whose achievements were only recently surpassed -- by Cal Ripken in consecutive games played, by Jeter in hits as a Yankee. We know him because he gave name to a terrible disease that afflicts 30,000 Americans -- 5,000 new cases a year -- and continues to confound the medical community.
We know him because of what he almost didn't say on July 4, 1939:
"So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you."
Seventy-five years ago -- July 4, 1939 -- a dying Lou Gehrig delivered the Gettysburg Address of baseball.