There’s one contemporary account of Lou Gehrig’s full 1939 farewell speech. And we can’t trust it.

The speech that we currently think of as Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech is available online (this version was published in 1976 in Eleanor Gehrig and Joseph Durso’s My Luke and I). Jonathan Eig published a modified version in 2005, “by piecing together the snippets I found in newspaper reports.”

As you may know, only four sentences of Gehrig’s speech survived on film and audio. We are sure what he said in those sentences.

For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…

…When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in the ballpark today?…

…So I close in saying that I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

That’s it. Those are the only lines we know Gehrig said for sure.

There are many contemporary newspaper accounts of that day, July 4, 1939. They note (among other things) that Gehrig mentioned his manager and former manager, that he mentioned his Yankees roommate Bill Dickey, that he acknowledged his parents and his wife.

But these accounts don’t tell us what he said about them.

And where these accounts attempt to render complete quotes from Gehrig’s speech, they come up with formulations that don’t fit the few recorded words we do have, or don’t fit with the other quotes produced by other contemporary writers.

So for instance, Shirley Povich recorded the first lines of Gehrig’s speech this way:

For weeks, I have been reading in the newspapers that I am a fellow who got a tough break. I don’t believe it. I have been a lucky guy. For 16 years, into every ball park in which I have ever walked, I received nothing but kindness and encouragement. Mine has been a full life.

That’s pretty close to what we have in the official version, and in the recordings, but not exactly. There are some important differences. The landmark “luckiest man on the face of the earth” line somehow gets chopped down to a rather pedestrian “I have been a lucky guy.”

Gehrig notes that he’s received nothing but encouragement in ballparks, but in Povich’s version he doesn’t credit the fans with providing that encouragement.

As for whether he received a bad break, Povich has Gehrig saying “I don’t believe it.” That isn’t in the official version.

These are just the variations in one handful of sentences.

John Drebinger of the New York Times rendered those lines as

You’ve been reading about my bad break for weeks now. But today I think I am the luckiest man alive. I now feel more than ever that I have much to live for.

Also Drebinger had those lines being delivered at the end of the speech not the beginning.

There was little agreement among contemporaries about what Gehrig said and no agreement about how he said it.


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