Lou Gehrig: Farewell to Baseball Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On May 2, 1939, Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees' first baseman, played his final game, removing himself from the lineup because of subpar play. A month later, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease–an illness that would take his life two years later. On July 4, 1939, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day to commemorate his stellar career. His impromptu speech during the occasion remains one of the most revered in sports history.

Summary Overview

On May 2, 1939, Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees' first baseman, played his final game, removing himself from the lineup because of subpar play. A month later, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease–an illness that would take his life two years later. On July 4, 1939, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day to commemorate his stellar career. His impromptu speech during the occasion remains one of the most revered in sports history.

Defining Moment

Known as the “Iron Horse,” Gehrig set a record for consecutive games played, with 2,130, through seventeen seasons between 1923 and 1939; his streak remained unbeaten until 1995, when Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr. surpassed it. His career statistics rank among the greatest in the game: His record of twenty-three grand slams was unbeaten until 2013, and he is fourth in runs batted in, with 1,993. His career batting average of .340 and home run total of 493 rank him near the top in both categories. However, to the great surprise of teammates, he began exhibiting trouble with his coordination during spring training before the 1939 season. Teammate Joe DiMaggio remembered Gehrig missing a significant number of fastballs and falling while dressing in the locker room.

On June 19, 1939, his thirty-sixth birthday, Gehrig learned from doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota that he had ALS, a neurodegenerative disease, effectively ending his career. After Gehrig's diagnosis, the Yankees announced his retirement, planning a Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4, 1939, to commemorate his life and career. Before a crowd of approximately 62,000 people, including New York mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia and teammate Babe Ruth, Gehrig delivered his famous speech. Though Gehrig had not planned to speak, the throng of well-wishers who chanted his name compelled him to step to the microphone.

Gehrig's career spanned both the heady days of the Roaring Twenties, symbolized in part by the great success of the Yankees during that decade, and the Great Depression. A little less than two months after Gehrig's speech, Adolf Hitler began the German invasion of Poland, thereby instigating World War II. Given the historical context, the men and women who heard Gehrig's speech, and the nation at large, faced their own forms of adversity. Gehrig stood on the precipice of death, yet he considered himself lucky to be surrounded by such support and love. Video footage of Gehrig during his speech shows an individual brimming with emotion, which only adds depth to his words. Though arguably one of the ten best players in the history of baseball, Gehrig's legend is built less on his on-field prowess than his farewell speech, during which he exhibited stoicism and gratitude in the face of mortality.

Author Biography

Henry Louis Gehrig was born on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in New York City, on June 19, 1903. His parents, Heinrich and Christina, were German immigrants, who had three other children: two girls and a boy, who died in infancy. Gehrig had been studying at Columbia University for two years when he was spotted by a baseball scout for the New York Yankees; he began his career with the Yankees in 1923. Gehrig shared the early part of his career with Babe Ruth, and the two anchored the 1927 team, one that is widely regarded as the best ever. In his later career, he shared the spotlight with Joe DiMaggio. Two years after being diagnosed with ALS, Gehrig died, on June 2, 1941, with his wife Eleanor by his side. She received flowers from President Franklin Roosevelt and more than 1,500 messages of sympathy.

Document Analysis

Modern ballplayers are known as much for their market value as their skill in the game. Contracts worth millions of dollars make the headlines of the sports pages and websites. Few articles concentrate on the player's pure love of the game. Gehrig's speech, on the other hand, is filled with gratitude for those that joined him on his journey: “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?” He admits that he got “a bad break,” but despite his mounting health problems, he describes himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Within his short speech, Gehrig specifically mentions Jacob Ruppert, Miller Huggins, Ed Barrow, and Joe McCarthy. Formerly a congressman, Ruppert was the owner of the Yankees, helping to finance the construction of the original Yankee Stadium, which opened in 1923. Huggins played professionally for the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals, before eventually becoming the Yankees manager during the 1920s. Barrow managed the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox before handling the business operations of the Yankees. Lastly, McCarthy was the Yankees manager from 1931 to 1946, a period that included the last eight years of Gehrig's career. All these men facilitated Gehrig's baseball career in one way or another. His comments–such as, “Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?”–attest to Gehrig's sincerity and his reputation as a thoughtful and intelligent person. He speaks of his gratefulness for having worked with managers Huggins and McCarthy, and does not forget to thank others in the Yankees hierarchy: “When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with a trophy–that's something.”

Gehrig closes his speech by thanking his family–including his parents, who worked hard to provide an education for him, and his wife, who has stood by his side. He acknowledges that, though he has suffered a great misfortune, he still had “an awful lot to live for.” Though he may not have planned to speak during the ceremony to commemorate his career, most agree that Gehrig could not have chosen a better way to demonstrate the man and ballplayer he was; essentially, his legacy is in this speech.

Essential Themes

Gehrig's genuine thankfulness for the outpouring of love and support from members of the Yankees to his fans, friends, and family is a theme that runs through his farewell speech. His speech reveals a man who did not take life's favors for granted. Given the historical context of his speech, toward the close of the Great Depression and on the cusp of World War II, his listeners were accustomed to uncertainty, and they could likely relate to the fact that Gehrig gave thanks not for material objects, but for the companionship of those around him. During the Great Depression, baseball afforded Americans a brief respite from thinking about their financial and familial struggles. They could be distracted by the game and its players. Gehrig, Ruth, and their teammates provided a diversion during troubled times.

For obvious reasons, Gehrig quickly became associated with ALS, and the condition is today still commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. This association put a face on ALS, increasing awareness of its effects upon the body. In this way, Gehrig has continued to bring hope and understanding to others, decades after he retired. ALS, which leads to paralysis, remains a fatal illness, and Gehrig's stoicism in the face of death, before a throng of more than 60,000 people, has become a legendary endeavor in sports. His proclamation that he considers himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” though tinged with irony, immediately became an inspiration to both fans and the general populace. For this, perhaps more than his on-field exploits, he became an American legend.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Brennan, Frank. “The Seventieth Anniversary of the Death of Lou Gehrig.” American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine 29.7 (2012): 512–14. AgeLine. Web. 10 June 2014.
  • Eig, Jonathan. Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. New York: Simon, 2005. Print.
  • Viola, Kevin. Lou Gehrig. Minneapolis: LernerSports, 2005. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 9 June 2014.
Categories: History Content