By the early spring of 1939, first baseman Lou Gehrig was feeling so poorly, he pulled himself out the New York Yankees’ lineup after having played in 2130 consecutive games–a record of athletic endurance that would stand for over half a century. A few weeks later, doctors finally diagnosed Gehrig as suffering from ALS–amyotrophic lateral sclerosis–a condition wherein nerve cells break down and eventually destroy the muscles they support. He was given three years to live.
For years, Gehrig had stood and performed in the heart of a Yankees’ batting order that was known, respected, and beloved even by those who didn’t care at all about baseball. Babe Ruth may have been the star of all those teams in the late 1920s and early 30s because of his prowess at hitting home runs, but it was Gehrig’s astonishing work as a run-producer (173 RBI in 1927; 185 in 1931; 166 in 1934) that drove the Yankee machine just as much. Gehrig set a high standard on defense, too, fielding his position with a skill many people didn’t believe possible in a big man.
What makes Gehrig’s case especially heartrending in retrospect is that he played with the disease throughout the latter half of the 1938 season. Having suffered through the onset of a disease myself many years ago and endured the pain of it as I tried to go to work, I cannot fathom. . . I cannot imagine how he was able to do it.
Gehrig was a college boy, a graduate of Columbia University in New York in an era when most ballplayers came from farms or the hard streets of a city’s slums. His cultured manner and tailored style didn’t always sit well with his teammates. He feuded with the rough-and-ready Ruth off the field, enduring the long and frequent train trips to opposing cities and watching as Ruth pulled prank after prank on the younger members of the team and even the manager, slender Miller Huggins. On the field, though, if Gehrig’s gifts as a hitter ever made Ruth jealous, he didn’t let it show, and Gehrig earned the respect of all his teammates by showing up to the ballpark each day for years on end and displaying offensive and defensive abilities the likes of which no one had ever seen before.
All of those abilities were completely short-circuited by the summer of 1939. The Yankees decided to pay tribute to the man who had been their bulwark at first base since 1923, and everybody who was anybody wanted to be there for the moment on July 4, 1939. Even Ruth, who had retired in 1935 and had been trying to land a job in baseball management ever since, came back to honor his teammate. The day, and the moment, moves me, because I ask myself, What do you say to a dying man? And, what in the world can a dying man say to us? and I’m given an answer. People who were there tell us that, at first, Gehrig was so moved by the Yankees’ presentation and the outpouring of respect and affection from the fans that he wasn’t going to speak at all. We’ve also been told by sportswriter Shirley Povitch, who was there, that cameramen were crying as they snapped their pictures and filmed the event. What do you say to such men? How do you comfort them, even as they are so obviously trying to comfort you?
This is what you say, and this is how it looked:
“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 this 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 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.”
Ernest Hemingway spent a great deal of time writing about manliness–what it was, and how to achieve it, whether it was on the hunt, within a fishing boat, or in the bullring. He spent a great deal of time contemplating “grace under pressure,” the valiant performance of an act when all the factors surrounding that act were conspiring against you; and in his fiction, we can see many examples of what Hemingway thinks the concept ought to look like. But Lou Gehrig’s bearing, and his speech on July 4, 1939, is the embodiment of grace under pressure. His life and words stand in that moment as the representation of what America offers to those who are born upon its shores and who come to live here: the parents who sacrifice so that their son may attend college; the son who trains his body so that he may work, not upon an agricultural field, but a ball field, in company with others who came from those same fields; an opportunity to leave behind a body of work that will be remembered and cherished; and, in the end, a chance to look death squarely in the eye and characterize it, with understated modesty and courage, as “a bad break.” And to think of oneself, weighing the good and the bad of his life, as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” This is who we wish to be. This is, at our finest, who we are.