MLB

The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth: Lou Gehrig’s Send Off 81 Years Later

This Independence Day is rather different than anybody anticipated. One could be listening to a lyrically desolate Martina McBride song in “Anytown, USA” having adopted the “Serenity Now” technique that didn’t work for Cosmo Kramer and caused him “insanity later,” as Lloyd Braun aptly put it, just to get through this pandemic. To say it’s been a strange 2020 wouldn’t suffice, but for the first time in as long as I can remember, there is no MLB game on this date of the calendar year due to the extenuating circumstances that have the globe locked away in their own homes.

That doesn’t mean, however, that baseball’s impact on this date still isn’t felt to this day. The world was far different in 1942. That was the year Singapore fell to Japan. It was the year Bing Crosby released “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” a holiday tradition come December. In August of that year, the US military landed in Guadalcanal for the very first time. The biggest movie star on the planet was not somebody like Margot Robbie or Michael B. Jordan, but rather Gary Cooper who had previously starred in film classics such as Meet John Doe and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. It was the year of the 14th Annual Academy Awards, nominated for Best Picture was Sergeant York. The next year, 1943, Gary Cooper again led a film to the nomination, but it was a movie released in 1942, and the movie was called Pride of the Yankees.

Pride of the Yankees, ironically just left the Criterion Collection’s catalogue four days ago, celebrates the retirement of the staple of the Nation in the 1930s: Lou Gehrig. At a time where baseball was the biggest standard in pop culture, it was the New York Yankees who were at the forefront and would go onto become the biggest franchise in sports, housing some of its most prominent Hall of Famers throughout their history. Players such as Babe Ruth, Whitey Ford, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Wade Boggs, Mariano Rivera, among countless of others. But there is one superstar who exemplifies what it means to donned the patented Yankee pinstripes: Lou Gehrig. It is this superstar that Gary Cooper portrays, and it is this superstar that is celebrated in the ride of Lou Gehrig and Yankee Pride from everybody who’s seen it, except for Phoebe Buffay of course.

Who is Lou Gehrig and what makes the iconic scene of Gary Cooper’s “today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” so unapologetically wonderful?

Lou Gehrig was the first baseman for six Yankee teams that won the World Series. He was a 7x All-Star, he hit .340 lifetime and hit four homeruns in a single 1932 contest. He won two MVP awards, and lost one year that he won the American League Triple Crown. From 1935 to his retirement in 1939, he was the captain of the Yankees. He put up a 114.1 BBREF WAR, had 493 career homeruns, complimented by 2721 total hits and a 1.080 lifetime OPS. For comparison, in 2019 the league average OPS was .758, .300 points shy of Gehrig’s career average OPS. At 35 years old, he was still productive hitting .295 with a .932 OPS in 157 games.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, his entire career was played on deteriorating health. He only played in 8 games 36 in 1939, before benching himself and ultimately retiring prematurely only having played eight games on the season. Imagine how good he could’ve been with four extra years, and in good health his entire career? He’d be the greatest statistical hitter of all-time. Alas, this was not to be the case. Having been baseball’s ironman long before Cal Ripken took him over and look before Robert Downey Jr. captivated audiences in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) in June, and there was no known cure.

Currently, the disease is still only found and diagnosed to less than 20,000 people a year in our country. It is now synonymous with Gehrig, one of the Nation’s biggest heroes of the past, and known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. There is still no cure known for this disease that rapidly reduces the muscle functions that are provided by the nerve cells that the disease decimates. The average person lives three years after their diagnosis, the unlucky seeing two and the most fortunate being five. The majority of patients pass away from respiratory failure in their sleep.

On July 4th, 1939, the Pride of the Yankees took the field for the final time to give a farewell address, which is one of the most famous speeches in US history.

“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 may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

Transcript of Lou Gehrig’s farewell address.

The Yankees retired number 4, making Gehrig the first player in baseball history to be honored in such a way. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy was quoted as to citing Gehrig as “the finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman, and citizen that baseball has ever known.” He, with a tear down his cheek, turned to Lou. “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.”

This day became known in America as “the Gettysburg of sports.” At the age of 36, he was the youngest player ever enshrined into Cooperstown, meaning he got a plaque in baseball’s Hall of Fame. He is still the youngest player to receive one 81 years after the fact.

Unfortunately, while Gehrig was found of his life well lived and his future despite the disheartening circumstances, he ultimately didn’t have much longer to live. At the age of 37, in 1941, Lou Gehrig died. He would be joined by his wife Eleanor in 1984 on what would have been his 80th birthday. He has plaques celebrating his life all over the city of Manhattan and he has a monument in Yankee Stadium. Though it was The House That Ruth Built, it was the house that Lou made it cool to live in.

Pride of the Yankees received nominations for 11 Academy Awards in 1943, for which it won Best Film Editing.

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