It is perhaps the most famous speech in sports history – Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech (given to a large Yankee Stadium crowd, two weeks after he retired, on July 4, 1939). You know the line, “today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
MLB.com did a nice video in which players read parts of the speech. It’s great. But it is more than great. It’s tells you something about this famous speech, that you wouldn’t know from the narrative film Pride of the Yankees. In Pride of the Yankees, the writers reordered the speech, edited it, maybe added some stuff. They essentially rewrote it, so that it followed a logical progression, leading to a climax of “the luckiest man” quote.
But that’s not how the speech really went. And that gets at the first really weird thing about Gehrig’s speech. From what we can tell, the speech was a bit of a mess.*
* In Part II, we’ll look at how little is actually known about what Gehrig said on that day.
Assuming the record we have approximates the speech that was given, Gehrig delivered a clunky and mis-shapen speech. He rambled. He made weird choices.
It wasn’t really a speech. It was more like a really human and genuine moment. Here was this guy who had been handed a terrible deal, yet he was rising above it, taking his final minutes in the spotlight to thank everyone he could remember. He spoke without notes. He just spoke.
He delivered his best line in the first 15 seconds – the “luckiest man” sentence is the second sentence he says.
The speech was filmed. But clips of only four sentences remain. One clip captures him flubbing a warm reference to his team-mates past and present (many of the 1927 Yankees were on the field that day as well). The line comes out like this: “when you look around, wouldn’t you consider it…privilege…to associate yourself with such a fine…looking men, as is standing in uniform in this ballpark today.”
If the notes of sportswriters are to be believed, he then spent a fairly extensive amount of time praising management, speaking well of the team’s late owner, the current team president, his previous manager (now also deceased), and the Yankees current manager. Does he mention even a single other ball-player by name? (In some accounts, he mentions his roommate, Bill Dickey.)
Gehrig received gifts from both his crosstown rivals, the New York Giants, and from that day’s opponent, the Washington Senators. Gehrig thanked the Giants, who were not there that day, but failed to thank the Senators, who were standing right there.
He might have said something about how his mother-in-law sometimes took his side in marital squabbles. Perhaps this was intended as a joke, to lighten the mood. If so, it must have flopped because no contemporary accounts mention this line.
It’s kind of a terrible speech. And a great, great human moment.