Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4, 1939: Luckiest Man

BRONX, N.Y. - He held his hat in his hands, keeping his hands together at his waist in front of him. As dignitary after dignitary took their turns at the microphone set up at home plate, he kept his head down, trying to contain his emotions. He'd barely lift his head as they came by to shake his hand, giving a smile and a slight nod before resuming his head-down pose.

The first genuine smile he cracked was when former teammate Babe Ruth moved in for a hug. Not wanting to ruin the photo opportunity, he smiled, pushing aside a decade-long fued with Ruth.

Lou Gehrig hated the attention, always had. When he was teammates with Ruth, he was always happy to let the big guy all the attention and accolades, even in the years where Gehrig was actually better. When Ruth left, he was replaced by Joe DiMaggio, another immortal who took the attention away from Gehrig. Again, Gehrig didn't complian. But on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Day, he had no choice but to stand there and accept it. That's what you did when your team threw a day in your honor, when 70,000 fans came to voice their appreciation.

The toughest moment was when Gehrig's manager, Joe McCarthy, took to the microphone. After a few minutes of prepared remarks, McCarthy broke down, turning to Gehrig and saying "Lou, what else can I say except that it was a sad day in the life of everybody who knew you when you came into my hotel room that day in Detroit and told me you were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God, man, you were never that."

And that was that. Or it almost was. Gehrig had no intention of speaking that day, being far too emotional to consider it. But with the crowd chanting for him and his old manager encoraging him, Gehrig finally stepped to the mic. He had no prepared statements, simply spoke from the heart. And what he said became his legacy. Much more than his consecutive-games streak, his MVP and championship seasons, even the disease that bears his name, Gehrig's simple opening statement said everything anybody needed to know about him and became the most famous pair of sentences ever uttered by a professional athlete.

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.

He continued, expressing gratitude at the fans who cheered him for 17 years, for the teammates and opponents there to honor him. He thanked his parents and his wife. Then he closed with an optimism that defied the circumstances.

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.

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