As of July 4, 2019, 80 years had passed since Lou Gehrig gave his heartfelt and heartbreaking speech at Yankee Stadium. He bid farewell to baseball, famously calling himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” despite being stricken with an incurable illness that would claim his life and come to bear his name.
A wonderful retrospective piece in the July 4, 2019, New York Times by Richard Sandomir, author of The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic, recounts several interesting facts about Gehrig’s speech befo
re 61,880 fans, many dignitaries, his teammates and the members of the team the Yankees were playing that day: the Washington Senators.
The most surprising piece of information from Sandomir’s story concerned the lack of a full audio version of what Gehrig said. Although many newsreel cameras were filming and radio microphones were in front the Iron Horse when he spoke, just three of those videos and no radio broadcasts exist today. No source has the complete audio. Only three lines from Gehrig himself can be heard today.
The speech that Gary Cooper, portraying Gehrig, makes in the iconic 1942 bio film, Pride of the Yankees, was based on the recollections of Mrs. Eleanor Gehrig and other newsreels that no longer exist. Sandomir reports that it was unlikely that Mrs. Gehrig had a copy of her husband’s remarks — if indeed, they had been prepared — because she kept extensive scrapbooks of news stories, photos and other memorabilia associated with her husband. Surely, if there had been a written copy, she would have had it.
Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, was there and wrote wonderfully about it for the next day’s paper. The column is included in 2005’s All Those Mornings … At the Post. “I saw strong men weep this afternoon, expressionless umpires swallow hard, and emotion pump the hearts and glaze the eyes of 61,000 baseball fans at Yankees Stadium,” Povich’s column began. But his quotes from the speech did not mention “the “luckiest man” phrase.
Members of the ’39 Senators, managed that season by Bucky Harris in his second go-round with the team, are pictured in a famous Associated Press photo that appears with the Times story. (Harris eventually would manage the Yankees in 1947 and ’48, before returning to Washington for a third time as manager of the Senators.)
In the panoramic photo, the Yankees and Senators are lined up on either side of the infield between the pitchers mound and home plate. Babe Ruth and several members of the 1927 Yankees were gathered around the plate. The ceremony took place between games of a holiday doubleheader. Gehrig had just stepped to the microphone. He had not been expected to speak.
Gehrig, weakened by his illness, had taken himself out of the Yankee lineup on April 30, ending his then-record string of consecutive games played that began in 1925. The Yankees were on their way a 106-45 record and another pennant. New York would sweep the Reds in the World Series.
On this day, however, the Nats beat the Yankees, 3-2, behind Dutch Leonard in the first game of the twin bill. No doubt inspired by Gehrig, New York pummeled Washington, 11-1, in the second game. George Selkirk, later the expansion Senators’ general manager, went 3-for-5 with a homer and a triple. The Yanks ended the day with a 52-17 record, already 11.5 games ahead of the Red Sox. The Nats were 29-43 on the way to a 65-87 finish in sixth place.