speech: Lou Gehrig, “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” (early draft – June 1939)

Posted: October 22, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Ed. Note: Perhaps the most famous speech given in American sports history was delivered on July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium by baseball player Lou Gehrig. For 17 years Gehrig was a star for the New York Yankees. His skills fell into sharp decline in 1938 and by May 1939 he was no longer able to play due to extreme physical weakness. On June 19, 1939 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and given less than three years to live. (The disease is now often referred to as “Lou Gehrig Disease.”) The news of his condition spread quickly and on June 21 the Yankees announced they would hold “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” on July 4. It was then that Gehrig delivered his famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech.

Gehrig’s speech, given less than three weeks after his diagnosis, is filled with humility and grace. In the attic of Trask Avenue we recently unearthed an early handwritten draft of the speech. Forensic experts have confirmed it was written by Gehrig. The assumption is he wrote this draft shortly after hearing he would be honored on July 4. How it morphed from this into the immortal speech he actually gave (included below) remains a mystery.

Early Draft of Speech

For a couple of weeks now you have been reading the news about me. The reporters are calling it a “bad break.” Heck, you can’t pick up a newspaper without another crumb saying, “That poor Gehrig, dealt such a bad break.” Bad break? Are you kidding me? I’ll tell you what a “bad break” is. It’s hitting into a double play or dropping a popup. It’s being called out when you were actually safe. That’s a “bad break.”

It isn’t when you find out your career is suddenly over and your paycheck will be drying up. It isn’t when they’ll be fitting you for a Chicago overcoat several decades sooner than expected. “Bad break” sounds about right when it isn’t happening to you. But when you’re the patsy, it feels like something completely different.

For seventeen years people have come up to me and said things like, “Lou, you are such a lucky fella, getting to play baseball for a living” or “Lou, you’re so lucky that you get cheered by thousands of fans for just hitting a baseball.” That’s swell and all, but today I hardly feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Yes, I play baseball. Sorry. I played baseball. That may sound like grand fun, but every day I also had to deal with these mugs you see standing along the foul lines. Maybe they can run fast and throw far. Maybe they can hit home runs and make diving catches. But have you ever eaten with them? I’m telling you, it’s like feeding time at the zoo. It’s disgusting. If that’s “lucky” then I’m Bruno Hauptmann.

I don’t want to single out the players. There are others on the field today deserving acknowledgement, among them Jacob Ruppert and Ed Barrow, the Yankees’ own butter and the egg men. You know, this is actually the first time I’ve seen them on the field. Usually they are holed up in those clip joints of theirs. It makes you wonder if they even know the difference between a fielder’s choice and Texas leaguer. But when it comes time to negotiate a new contract they suddenly turn into an ever-loving John McGraw, throwing bad statistics in your face like crumbs to a pigeon, all to save money. But now, thanks to my “bad break,” I have no more contracts to fight for, no more pleas to wrassle a few extra dimes out of these two twits. Maybe I am lucky.

I have also played for two of the most famous managers of all-time, Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy. People call them baseball geniuses. However, a day off now and then would have been nice. Playing 2,130 consecutive games is okay, but I can’t help but wonder if I got to rest every once in a while I wouldn’t be waiting for the meat wagon now.

I know you see all these gifts on the field for me, gifts from teams like our sworn enemies the New York Giants, and think, “Ain’t that swell!” Let me tell you, maybe teams don’t like each other, but when you hear a player say they would give their right arm to beat another team – that’s nonsense. When you hear the groundskeepers and ball boys say they would gladly trade places with old Lou – that’s nonsense. When a few weeks ago your mother-in-law starts talking about “making sure you have everything you need” after years of insisting nothing you did was right – that’s suspicious. And when you have a wife who rubs your back while whispering sweet nothings in your ear about “the will” – that’s extra suspicious.

So let me finish up by saying what’s happening to me isn’t a “bad break.” It’s a bum rap and the last thing I feel is lucky.

Actual Speech

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. 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 that 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. Thank you.

  1. I lost a friend to this cruel disease. I hope there is a cure in the near future. We had hoped there would be one before it completely its attack on her body. Sadly, no. I feel like you must also know someone with this to write such a first draft to Lou Gehrig’s speech. He must have been very brave.


  2. These days, I’m sure the news pundits would find a way to twist even the words from his real speech.


  3. rangewriter says:

    Now wait a minute. I clicked the link to the attic, but I didn’t find out much about this attic. Is it just in your head or is it real? And how, may I ask, did such a valuable and important relic end up in YOUR attic? What is the connection between Trask and Gerig? Fascinating.


  4. kayjai says:

    I’m thinking the first one would have gotten just as much attention….Nice job…


  5. That’s really interesting. It’s like the difference between what we feel on the inside and would like to say, and what we end up with after we censor ourselves. Probably after he wrote the first draft he got it out of his system. You can see though, it’s WAY more honest.


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