“The finest example of a ballplayer, sportsman, and citizen…”

These are the words spoken by New York Yankees manager Joe McCarthy on July 4, 1939.

New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig had announced his retirement from baseball on June 21st.  After almost 17 years in of play, increasing fatigue and lack of coordination had led his wife Eleanor to call the famed Mayo Clinic.  Six days of extensive testing led to the devastating diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  His rapidly increasing paralysis and difficulties with breathing and swallowing meant that the prognosis was dire.  Life expectancy was estimated at about three years.

The Yankees decided to honor the retiring player by declaring July 4, 1939 “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”.  Between the games of their double-header against the Washington Senators, speeches, ceremonies, and awards extolled the virtues of one of baseball’s legendary players.  After all the presentations, remarks by dignitaries, and a speech by  teammate Babe Ruth, Gehrig addressed the crowd:

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 the 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 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 been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

— Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium, July 4, 1939After his remarks, the crowd gave a standing ovation and chanted “We love you, Lou” to the visibly emotional Gehrig.  He left his beloved game and took a public service post; declining more lucrative speaking and appearance jobs.  On June 2, 1941, less than 2 years after his diagnosis, Henry Louis “Lou” Gehrig died at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, New York.  Gehrig’s number 4 was retired by the Yankees.  It was the first time that honor had ever been bestowed on a player.

How many of us could face the devastation of a life-changing diagnosis with such aplomb?  How many of us could look past our own struggles to see where we can touch the lives of others?  We could all be a little better if we were a little more like Lou.

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