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75 Years Later, Gehrig's Still the Man

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This baseball season marks the 75th anniversary of New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig's retirement from baseball.

On May 2, 1939, Gehrig voluntarily pulled himself out of the Yankees' lineup after 2,130 consecutive games. At the time, he was suffering from unexplained weakness and was hitting a paltry .143.

"I'm benching myself, for the good of the team," Gehrig had told his manager Joe McCarthy in an emotional meeting the night before.

Gehrig began to feel changes in his body during the latter stages of the previous season. Then in spring training before the 1939 campaign, he collapsed during a practice. It was clear something was wrong but nobody knew what.

Finally, on June 19, his 36th birthday, Gehrig left the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota with his diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a cruel affliction characterized by increasing weakness, and ultimately, an inability to initiate or control bodily movements. The disease would later become commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Gehrig's amazing baseball career was over and his time on Earth was limited.

A couple of weeks later, on the 4th of July, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, Gehrig gave his famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. Due to its powerful impact, it's worth posting here in its entirety:

"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 this 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 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 may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you."

Gehrig the athlete was outstanding. He went to Columbia on a football scholarship before beginning his legendary baseball career with the Yankees.

Even though his career was cut short by ALS, he finished with 493 home runs, 1,990 RBIs, and a .340 batting average. He hit a major league record 23 grand slams and averaged 153 RBIs over an 11-year span, a testament to his ability to hit in the clutch. His lifetime slugging percentage was .632. And, of course, he showed up for work and played every day for almost 14 consecutive seasons.

Nevertheless, as good as Gehrig was on the field he was probably a better person. His character was impeccable and his work ethic was second to none. Courage, perseverance, endurance, sportsmanship, humility, and dedication are all words associated with Gehrig.

League of Fans founder Ralph Nader has been a lifelong admirer of Gehrig.

"Never a scandal, a paragon of self-control, he was my boyhood 'role model' before those words came into currency," Nader says. "His character shone to the very end. Dying of what is now called Lou Gehrig's disease, he was given a rousing day of gratitude and love at a packed Yankee Stadium. Only Lou, still in his 30's, would have thought to say to more than 60,000 tearing fans, 'I'm the luckiest man on the face of the earth.'"

After Gehrig learned about his disease, he refused to wallow in self-pity. In order to remain productive, he took a job as a parole commissioner so he could help troubled youths, turning down more financially-attractive opportunities that simply played off his fame as a baseball star. Gehrig worked as a parole commissioner long past the point that friends and family urged him to quit. He continued to work after he no longer could drive, walk without a cane, hold a pencil, or answer the phone without assistance. He finally stopped working on April 14, 1941, less than two months before his death.

"Don't think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition," wrote Gehrig in a letter to one of his doctors in January of 1941. "I intend to hold on as long as possible, and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That's all we can do."

Gehrig died on June 2, 1941. Hundreds of tributes came in from across the country. Perhaps baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis summed up Gehrig's baseball career best -- and most succinctly: "Gehrig was not only a great ballplayer but a real gentleman whose conduct on and off the field set a standard to which all players may well aspire."

Gehrig was not only a great baseball player, he was a great man. Not only did he set a standard that all baseball players can aspire to, as Landis pointed out, he also set a standard that all human beings can aim for, whatever role they play in life.

This July 4th, the 75th anniversary of his famous speech, I urge you to take a few minutes from your backyard barbecue festivities, and other Independence Day activities, and contemplate Gehrig's speech.

Then reflect a little on the character of a man that would utter those words, given the situation he faced.

It's been 75 years since Lou Gehrig pulled himself out of the lineup, but he continues to provide a model for all of us -- on how to live and die.

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