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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Lou Gehrig Day, July 4, 1939

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Today in 1939, Lou Gehrig delivered his famous closing speech at Yankee Stadium in the New York City borough of the Bronx. This marked the symbolic end of Gehrig's career, a 17-season run that showed him to not only be an exceptional athlete, but a man of great character as well.

Henry Louis Gehrig was born in June, 1903 to poor German immigrants living in the Yorkville area of Manhattan. Despite their poverty, the Gehrig's sent their son to Columbia University. Their hope was that he would follow the career path of his uncle and become an architect, but baseball was his first love. While still in high school, Gehrig won national attention in 1920 for hitting a grand slam completely out of Wrigley Field in Chicago, a feat that was considered impossible for a 17-year old. Three years later, in the spring of 1923, Gehrig struck out 17 batters in one game while playing for Columbia. A Yankees scout was in the stands that day, and though Gehrig set a team record for his pitching, it was his powerful hitting that made him stand out. Two months later, he left Columbia to join the New York Yankees.

Gehrig didn't have many opportunities to shine in his first two seasons, but by the end of his third he was hitting his stride. This coincided with the arrival of a man whose name will forever be associated with baseball and the roaring twenties---Babe Ruth. Ruth and Gehrig played together for ten seasons, during which time Gehrig played in the The Great Bambino's shadow. Part of this was Ruth's larger-than-life persona, which sometimes out-shined his performance on the field. In fact, Gehrig outperformed Ruth during some of their seasons together. For example, Gehrig had more runs batted in for seven seasons and had more hits than Ruth for eight of their ten seasons together. Despite these accomplishments, Gehrig almost always occupied a spot behind Ruth in the limelight.

Beginning on June 2nd, 1925, Gehrig played 2,130 consecutive games over a span of nearly 14 years. Sometimes, his only appearance in a game would be as a pinch hitter. He played with injuries more than once, including a game against the Washington Senators in 1933 when he was knocked unconscious, but recovered and finished the game. Gehrig's consecutive game record remained unbroken until September 6, 1995, when Cal Ripken, Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles played his 2,131st consecutive game. Ripken would go on to play 2,632 consecutive games, a record that is likely to stand as long as Gehrig's.

During the 1938 season, longtime fans and sports writers began to notice a change in Gehrig's performance. His final statistics for that season were good, but showed a dramatic dropoff in numbers as compared to 1937. At the beginning of spring training in 1939, it was obvious that something was wrong. Once a strong base runner, Gehrig now seemed like he was being held back. At the end of April, his batting average was .143, the worst of his career. Observant reporters saw that Gehrig still had the reflexes he had always possessed; it was as if he had no power left to put behind his perfect swings. On April 30, he went hitless against the Washington Senators. Before the next game in Detroit on May 2nd, Gehrig told Yankees manager Joe McCarthy that he was benching himself---the 14-year unbroken string of games was at an end. When the game announcer told the fans of Gehrig's decision, the Tigers fans gave him a standing ovation. Although he stayed with the Yankees for almost two more months, he never left the dugout again.

Gehrig's condition rapidly became worse. Frustrated by a lack of answers, Eleanor Gehrig, Lou's wife, called the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and spoke with Dr. William Mayo, who had been following Gehrig's apparent loss of strength. After six days of testing at the clinic during June, the baseball star was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS, as the disease is known in medical circles, is a rare, progressive, degenerative disease that attacks the cells in the central nervous system responsible for voluntary muscle movement. Many victims begin feeling muscle weakness as the neurons degenerate and die; eventually, the brain loses the ability to control voluntary movement, although most victims retain mental clarity. Gehrig was told that his life expectancy was less than three years. This prognosis was given on June 19th, 1939, Lou's 36th birthday.

Gehrig's retirement from the Yankees was officially announced two days later and July 4th was proclaimed Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium. A double-header was played that day and the time between games was occupied with a ceremony honoring the great player. Among the speakers were New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy and Gehrig's longtime teammate, Babe Ruth. Gehrig stepped to the microphone and gave a short speech, one that is still often heard today. The two most famous lines came at the beginning and end:

Gehrig's uniform number, 4, was retired by the Yankees, the first player to be given that honor. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame later in the year when the Baseball Writers Association decided to waive the normal 5-year waiting period.

Lou Gehrig died at his home in the Bronx on June 2, 1941. He was survived by his wife, Eleanor, who never remarried and spent the rest of her life raising money for ALS research. Because of Lou's fame and Eleanor's devotion to finding a cure, ALS is more commonly known today as Lou Gehrig's Disease. There is still no cure.

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