The Iron Horse

by Derek Peterson

On July 4, 1939 Lou Gehrig, better known as the “Iron Horse of Baseball,” gave what has been recognized as one of the best speeches in American History. One month earlier, Gehrig made New York City headlines as he took himself out of the starting lineup for the first time in fourteen years. Gehrig had served the nation for almost a decade and a half as a model of consistency and was considered indestructible. As the microphone was passed to him in front of a full house at Yankee Stadium, you could hear a pin drop. Faithful Yankees fans piled in to hear what would be Gehrig’s last words on a baseball field:

 Photo credit: Yucel Moran

Photo credit: Yucel Moran

"Fans, 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. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”1

This speech served as his formal farewell to the fans, teammates, organizations, and even family. Unlike typical farewell speeches that address retirement and golf dates, Gehrig’s had much more serious implications, as he was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). The symptoms were severe as it eventually deteriorated Gehrig’s body and left him with limited motor functions. In the 1930s, ALS was not well-known to the public, but at the time of the speech, it was known that ALS would be terminal for him.

He referred to his diagnosis with courageous wisdom by using the phrase “bad break.” Instead of dwelling on misfortune, Gehrig instead focused on the reasons his life was amazing. He honored his teammates, mentors, and even lower level employees of the Yankees organization.

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career 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 the next nine 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.”1

The last tribute Gehrig paid was a personal tribute to his mother-in-law, parents, and wife. This sentimental aspect of the speech shared very personal information for the world to take in. As much as this speech was considered a farewell act, I think of it as a living memorial service. It is very unique in this aspect because the purpose of this speech was to give thanks back to Gehrig for his service, but really he was giving back to his fans, friends and family for an amazing life.

“When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles against her own daughter, that's something. When you have a father and 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 had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for!”1

 Photo credit: www.phideltatheta.org

Photo credit: www.phideltatheta.org

This speech was intriguing to me because I am an avid baseball fan. Additionally, Gehrig’s legendary status in baseball serves as a model for ethical integrity in the tainted steroid era I grew up in. After reading his biography, I came to understand the value of the hard work and commitment that he brought to the ballpark every day for fourteen years. Legend has it that he even constantly feuded with Yankees legend Babe Ruth because Ruth enjoyed the limelight and would often show up to games hungover or even drunk. I found this to be courageous because Ruth’s celebrity status in the game was untouchable. Ruth was known as the Home Run King!

The fact that Gehrig stood up for the team’s best interest highlights his true leadership qualities. His parents, immigrant factory workers who sacrificed their quality of life to provide for young Lou, embedded leadership and courage in him at an early age. Gehrig’s success in the game of baseball was no different than any other labored job to him. That is why he was special. To the world he was superman, but to his peers he was just another John Doe that gave his best effort every day because it was his duty.

In my opinion, Gehrig’s farewell speech became the American artifact it is today because he died from his “bad break” shortly after he gave the speech. ALS has been dubbed the “Lou Gehrig’s” disease because of the bravery and courage he displayed as he faced an illness that was deteriorating his body. Gehrig and his wife Eleanor were some of the first financial donors for ALS research; even today, Gehrig’s memory lives on through the Lou Gehrig Foundation, which actively supports the research to find a cure for ALS.

Lou Gehrig’s entire career revolved around his personal sacrifice to his team in pursuit of victory. That selflessness echoed beyond the ballpark, as he used his fame to bring awareness to such a terrible illness that has plagued so many lives. This commitment to the greater good is why the Iron Horse’s farewell speech is among the greatest speeches in American History.