26 June, 2012

Torn On The Fourth Of July

Lou Gehrig is someone I admire. He died, of course, before I was born, but as a lad looking for role models, I loved baseball, I loved the Yankees, and I played first base, the same as Gehrig. Each year as we inch closer to the Fourth of July, I think of him.

If you know his story, you know him as the Iron Man. He played in 2130 consecutive games between 1925 and 1939, a record that stood until recently. He batted an amazing .340, 14th highest in the history of baseball, and my father watched him play in Yankee Stadium.

You are probably more likely to know him because they named the disease after him - Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's Disease. It sapped his strength and ultimately killed him as it does 90% of its victims within six years of diagnosis.

You may also know his name because of Gary Cooper - who starred as Gehrig in Samuel Goldwyn's 1942 production of Pride of the Yankees. The film depicts Gehrig's life including his brave struggle with the disease. Who hasn't at some point heard a reference to the speech Gehrig made on July 4,1939 as he said good-bye to baseball. There's even a reference in Sleepless in Seattle. It must have been unbearably difficult for him to take himself out of the line-up two months earlier - a necessary decision as he came to accept the reality of his illness. To retire on July 4 was surely even harder.

In his portrayal of the speech, Cooper's lines were:

"I have been walking on ball fields for 16 years, and I've never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

I have had the great honor to have played with these great veteran ballplayers on my left -- Murderers Row, our championship team of 1927. I have had the further honor of living with and playing with these men on my right -- the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees of today.

I have been given fame and undeserved praise by the boys up there behind the wire in the press box -- my friends, the sports writers. I have worked under the two greatest managers of all time, Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy.

I have a mother and father who fought to give me health and a solid background in my youth. I have a wife, a companion for life, who has shown me more courage than I ever knew. People all say that I've had a bad break, but today -- today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Very moving - but for some reason I found myself wondering if that was really what Gehrig said that momentous day. You can decide for yourself, but I think the actual speech was even more inspiring than the movie version - although I understand the reasons for the editorial changes Hollywood made.

What I am certain of is that men of this caliber are today few and far between, and we are in desperate more of them (men or women) - those who understand that sometimes one must do what is in the best interests of the team (i.e., the masses) rather than serve your own narrow interests or those of a select few.

Lou Gehrig said:

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a 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 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."


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