Eighty-one years ago, on July 4, 1939, angels wept in the clouds over Yankee Stadium when Lou Gehrig said goodbye to baseball. Teammates from the 1927 Yankees had come from all over the country for one last reunion. Ballplayers from the current Yankee and Washington Senators rosters lined up along the baselines. Dignitaries stood around home plate. A jam-packed stadium, 61,808 by official tally, waited anxiously for the ceremonies to begin. All eyes were on Lou as he shuffled from the dugout, tears already evident on his cheeks.
Taking a position near some small tables, Lou listened patiently as speakers recounted milestones from his illustrious career—2,130 consecutive major league games, two Most Valuable Player awards and on and on. Then a slight gust of wind showed this assembled host the character of the man they had come to memorialize. This puff of a breeze blew a hat from a table to the ground. Without hesitation, Lou took a couple of steps, bent over, retrieved the hat, brushed it off and placed it back on the table. It was a simple gesture, but indicative of Lou’s inherent humility that held other people’s needs above his own. Teamwork had always meant more than individual accomplishment.
When the speeches ended, Lou stepped forward to accept a series of gifts. He tried to beg off giving a speech, but the fans would have none of that. Over 60,000 admirers began to scream in unison, “We want Lou! We want Lou!! We want Lou!!!” He could not, he would not disappoint the fans. Passing around the mementoes piled on the ground, Lou stepped to the microphones and gave one of the most inspiring extemporaneous speeches the world has ever heard. Reports differ as to his exact words, but the following version, with observations by sportswriter Hy Turkin, are as close to the original as is now possible. As Lou cleared his throat, the mammoth, tumultuous New York crowd grew silent, not wanting to miss a single word. Then Lou, bareheaded and holding his cap, began to speak those few words that reverberated throughout Yankee Stadium and the nation’s hearts.
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. 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.” Lou stopped to clear his throat and daub his moistened eyes and nose with a handkerchief. “When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such a fine looking [body of] men as they’re standing in uniform in this ballpark today?” He motioned to the Yanks of ’27, and to his mates of ’39.
“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?”
Everything was silence in answer to his rhetorical dare. Telegraphers, sophisticated reporters, all were numb now, staring at the graying speaker. Not a telegraph click-clacked, not a typewriter pounded – a tribute accorded not even the tensest World Series moment or the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
“Who wouldn’t feel honored to have roomed with such a grand guy as Bill Dickey?” (applause) Gehrig paused to look at the trophies again. “Sure, I’m lucky, when the New York Giants (boos), a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. (cheers) 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 (boos) who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter (cheers) – 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. (cheers) 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’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”
A moment of silence. Then a heart-rending burst of cheers and tears. Lou’s friends crowded round him, hugged him, shook his hand and patted his shoulders. The band broke into “Du, Du, Ligst Mir im Herzen” [You, You Are in My Heart] and there was not a dry eye or clear throat in the stadium.