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An enduring inspiration in our fight to cure ALS

Luckiest Man LG (1)

Each Fourth of July marks the anniversary of New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig’s official farewell to baseball and public disclosure of his ALS diagnosis. In honor of the 85th anniversary of that historic day, we are inspired to share more about his story, both before and after his journey with the neurodegenerative disease.

Lou Gehrig began his major league baseball (MLB) career in 1923 at the age of 19. Over the next 16 years, he became known as the “Iron Horse,” and led the team to six World Series titles. He also set many league records including the most grand slams and most consecutive games played (2,130), a record that stood for 56 years and was long considered unbreakable. But as the 1939 season got under way, his coordination and speed had deteriorated significantly. He approached the team manager and said, “I’m benching myself…for the good of the team.” After extensive medical visits and testing at the Mayo Clinic, on his 36th birthday, Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS.

On July 4, 1939, the Yankees held a “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” to pay tribute to their local hero. When the ceremony neared its end, Lou waved off the emcee’s request to speak. The public tributes had overwhelmed him. He fought to keep back the tears and kept looking at the ground. The announcer told the fans: “He is too moved to speak.” But in turn, the crowd chanted— “We want Lou! We want Lou!”

It is not known if his remarks were written in advance, as no official version appears to exist. To speak extemporaneously would have been a bold and risky decision given his shyness and lack of experience at public addresses. Yet, in what was intended to be a simple thanks to those in attendance at Yankee Stadium, Lou inspired the world by saying, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. His brief remarks expressed optimism and gratitude, and remain the most iconic speech in sports history today. The Yankees retired his uniform number “4”, making him the first player in MLB history to be accorded that honor. Lou was also elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and was the youngest player to be so honored to date. 

What happened after Lou Gehrig left the public eye is a testament to his generosity of spirit. In October 1939, he accepted a 10-year term appointment as a New York City Parole Commissioner. Lou indicated he took the post because it was an opportunity for public service, and rejected other job offers – including lucrative speaking and guest appearance opportunities. As usual, he applied himself to his new career with the same perseverance and determination that he dedicated to baseball.

The former Phi Delta Theta fraternity brother from Columbia University began attending commission meetings before his term formally began. When he would visit the city’s correctional facilities, Lou insisted that it not be covered by the news media. While living with the challenges of ALS, Lou performed his many duties, often counseling young men who had taken a wrong turn in life. He was helped by his wife, Eleanor, who would guide his hand when he had to sign official documents. When his deteriorating physical condition made it impossible for him to continue his work, he quietly resigned. One month later, Lou Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, at the age of 37.

Every year, we continue to honor and remember Lou’s legacy and celebrate the “never give up” determination of all those touched by this devastating disease. Please take a moment to watch this thoughtful presentation about this iconic day in American history, courtesy of Major League Baseball and the Smithsonian Channel, narrated by Golden Globe Award-winner and Emmy Award-nominated actor Martin Sheen.

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