The Iron Horse. Mandatory Credit: npr.org

Bomber Bites With Jumping Joe--Remembering Lou Gehrig's Speech


Mandatory Credit: Chad R. MacDonald.

Mandatory Credit: Chad R. MacDonald.

Lou Gehrig was one of the greatest players ever to play baseball.   He is also one of the most underrated and one of the least understood.  He was a Hall of Famer who played in the shadow of Babe Ruth, the greatest player who ever lived.  He won two MVPs, and came in second two other years.  He made seven All-Star teams, and would have made more had they existed.  His 185 RBI in 1931 is still the American League record.  He led the league in home runs 3 times.  He led the league in RBI five time.  He was a career .340 hitter.  His 2130 consecutive games streak is second only to Cal Ripken Jr’s 2632.  But to the common fan, he is not remembered for his accomplishments on the field, he is remembered for a speech he gave at Yankee  Stadium on July 4, 1939.

Gehrig was known as the Iron Horse during his playing days.  A hulking figure in the batters box, who was as strong as they come, Gehrig was stricken with the terrible disease that today bears his name.  After his diagnosis and subsequent retirement, the Yankees arranged for Gehrig to be honored in between games of a doubleheader.  Former teammates, politicians, and other dignitaries joined a sold out crowd in honoring the great player, who was then given a chance to address the crowd.  What happened next would become one of the most iconic speeches of all time.  A speech that can be recited by Americans as easily as the Gettysburg Address.

Most Americans can recite the lines of the speech with nearly complete accuracy.  Except of course they aren’t reciting Gehrig’s words, diction and mannerisms but that of Gary Cooper.  Gary Cooper played Gehrig in the movie “Pride of the Yankees” in 1942.  Former Yankee teammates Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel and Mark Koenig also appeared in the film to honor the late Gehrig.  The movie received eleven Academy Award nominations and culminated with Gehrig’s memorable speech.  However, the movie speech is vastly different from the actual speech given by the former Yankee first baseman.  The “Luckiest Man” portion of the speech was moved from the beginning of the speech to the end to increase the dramatic effect. Thus, when the speech is quoted, most people are actually quoting Cooper, who is paraphrasing Gehrig.

Whether we quote Cooper or Gehrig, the effect of the speech remains the same.  It was a truly American moment in time, that came on the anniversary of this nation’s birth.  When looking at the historical significance of the speech, one has to put in perspective the world around which the speech was given.  America was slowing coming out of the Great Depression.  In Europe, Hitler would invade Poland a few months later.  The movie would come out the summer after the Pearl Harbor attack, and a year after Gehrig’s death.  The speech is one of sacrifice and determination.  It speaks of gratitude and optimism.  On this 75th anniversary of that speech, on our Independence Day, we should all remember those words and the meaning behind them, for they tell the true story of the American Dream and our National Pastime.

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