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

The official version of Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech was not readily available until Gehrig’s wife – Eleanor – published her biography (with sportswriter Joseph Durso) in 1976, 37 years after Gehrig gave the speech.*

Read the speech. The language is distinctive. The rhythm of the words infectious. The effect is very moving.

Yet, given that we only have recordings of four sentences, and contemporary accounts consistently disagree on the wording of Gehrig’s statements, and don’t provide a complete catalog of what he said, and occasionally disagree even on the substance of what he said (for example, Povich said Lou Gehrig thanked Babe Ruth), why should we trust that Eleanor Gehrig got it right 37 years later?

You might reply that the popular book by author Jonathan Eig, Luckiest Man (2005), contains a version of the speech as well. According to Eig, he “pieced together” the speech from contemporary accounts. And Eig’s version is very, very similar to Eleanor Gehrig’s. So is this independent confirmation that Eleanor Gehrig basically got the wording right?


It is certainly true that Eig’s version is very, very similar to Eleanor Gehrig’s. There are 14 lines in Eleanor Gehrig’s version, 15 in Eig’s (Eig added a line on Bill Dickey). Of the common 14 lines, 12 are practically identical in wording, a 13th nearly so.*

Practically identical. No two newspaper accounts written by sportswriters there in the stadium that day are anywhere near as harmonious as the versions written by Eleanor Gehrig in 1976 and Jonathan Eig in 2005. This suggests that perhaps they were working from a common text.

Eig’s version varies from Eleanor Gehrig’s account most notably in the fourth line of the speech, for which Eig had audio to refer to. Presumably Eleanor Gehrig did not have access to the same recording. Eig has:

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? Sure, I’m lucky.

That’s basically what we can hear Gehrig say on the audio tape. Eleanor Gehrig  got it wrong in her version when she wrote:

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.*

What is mysterious, of course, is that they both agree that Gehrig then said, “Sure, I’m lucky.” That wasn’t on the tape. And unless some writer in 1939 recorded a complete transcript, it seems unlikely they would both have the same line, in the same place.

Yet there it is.

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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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Lou Gehrig’s Terrible and Wonderful Farewell Speech, Part 2

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.”

But aside from that line, and three other sentences, we don’t know exactly what Gehrig said that day.

Only four sentences of the speech survive on tape. The official version of the speech that we have today was in fact (loosely) recreated by Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor (and, after that weekend, not published again until 1976).

Eleanor Gehrig’s version, the most commonly cited, is online at From what little audio recording remains, we know it is not fully accurate. For instance, Gehrig actually said:

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

The accepted transcript renders that line (I think it’s supposed to be that line) as:

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?

It’s close, but not really.

Who knows what else was missed? And what survives in transcript that may not have been said at all?

Jonathan Eig, the author of a book on Gehrig, had this to say:

When I wrote a book on Gehrig, I pieced together as much of the speech as I could from newspaper accounts of the day.

He then proceeds with decided confidence about what was said that day:

The words are beautiful in their simplicity, and sportswriters back then tended to lay it on more thickly. It also seems unlikely that a sportswriter would have thought to thank the ushers and groundskeepers.

Here Eig is dismissing the possibility that a sportswriter helped Gehrig prepare by ghost-writing Gehrig’s farewell speech. Fair enough.

But since only four recorded sentences survive, Gehrig used no written script, and no official notes were taken, the larger issue is ghost-writing after-the-fact.

How good were the memories of the sportswriters about what they heard. Eig himself says they weren’t taking notes when Gehrig spoke:

…every photographer and writer seemed to stare and wait. Even the men in the press box stopped typing…

In the press box, where the typewriters began to clack again as soon as Gehrig finished, the power and importance of his speech registered instantly.

It is possible that the surviving transcript was made from a recording that is now gone, and would thus be more accurate. But we know the surviving transcript does not conform well to one of the four sentences we still have on audio tape. That’s a pretty big error rate.

Regardless, this was a beautiful human moment, even if we acknowledge that the speech we have today is something we need to take on faith, as a cleaned-up approximation of what Gehrig may have meant to say on that wonderful day.

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Lou Gehrig’s Terrible and Wonderful Farewell Speech

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.” 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.

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Soccer in the United States and the World, Part 4

The conventional belief holds that soccer is the most popular sport everywhere in the world except the United States, yet:

The U.S. viewership numbers for the World Cup are too big to ignore. There were more Americans who watched USA vs Portugal than Brits who watched England vs Italy.*

* Those who suggest U.S. interest in soccer is minimal compared to other nations tend to ignore population differences. The United States has a population about five times larger than the United Kingdom. So while proportional interest in soccer in the UK may be greater – sometimes as much as 1/3 of the population is watching one match – absolute interest in the U.S. is higher in part because there are just so many more people here.

So instead we hear the following story: sure, Americans have World Cup fever, but after this event, soccer will go back to being a sport of only marginal interest in the United States.

But that statement ignores average viewership numbers for soccer matches in the United States. And even those who acknowledge soccer’s growing year-round television audience, tend to ignore the importance of Spanish language soccer broadcasts in the U.S.

By the Spring of 2014, the English Premier League on the NBC networks was averaging about 1.1 million viewers per match.

During this same period of time, Univision Spanish-language broadcasts of Liga Mx (Mexico’s top league) were averaging about 1.1 million viewers in the U.S. as well.

How does that compare with, say, average viewership of English Premier League games in Britain?

Quite well. It takes a little computation (sorry, its a bit of drag to find UK television ratings), and we are required to go back a few years, but is widely reported that the average English Premier League game draws 12.3 million viewers world-wide, and 16% of viewers are in the UK.

That’s about 1.97 million viewers in the UK, on average. Those numbers may have gone up a bit in the past couple of years (but maybe not). Regardless, they are about on par with the combined averages of Americans watching Premier League and Liga Mx in any given week.

The same is true for big games. In 2012 , Chelsea and Manchester United met in what was essentially a playoff game for the EPL lead. That game drew a big number in the UK – almost 3.2 million viewers.

But that compares poorly with the Liga Mx championship game from earlier this year, which drew 4.7 million U.S. viewers to Univision.

On average, televised soccer draws a higher percentage of total viewers in Britain than in the United States. But, on average, there are comparable numbers of Americans and Brits watching televised soccer week to week.

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Nature v Nuture in Parenting Studies: the nurture side has adopted the strategy of ignoring the debate

Take a look at this article (if you want). It’s another article about parenting in The Atlantic. This time the claim is that less attentive parents cause their children to have smaller brains.*

* Not every report on these studies is so flippant about making unsupported causal links and avoiding the question of nature. For instance, there’s this refreshing bit of candor: “The study can’t prove poverty or parenting caused the changes in brain size.” 

The problem with this article, like so many others, is that it doesn’t actually engage with the nature vs nurture debate. Instead the article, as is typical, just cites some piece of information about children and then claims that it must be nurture without attempting to even disprove explanations based on nature.

So in this case parenting styles are observed, and the brain sizes of children are measured. The parenting style – or observer impressions of the parenting style – are then given as the cause for the physical evidence (smaller brain sizes in the child).

What’s missing? An assessment of the brain sizes of the parents would be nice. If parents with small brains tend to a) parent a certain way, and b) produce kids with smaller brains, then you would at least have to consider the possibility that the parental behavior and the small brain size of the child are both being driven by the parent’s genes.

But there is no measurement of parental brain size. Their is no engagement with the debate. There is no advancement in our understanding of what causes what.

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Sit down. Relax.

You may have seen the recent article in New York Magazine called Sitting is Bad for You. So I Stopped. For a Whole Month. I understand that humor is part of the intention of this article, but its very premise – that sitting is indeed bad for you – is now widely accepted by lay people (there are people in my office now who have redesigned their workspaces so they can stand while working) and I kind of wonder why.

Usually this sort of health hokum is based on a cohort study, with weak findings, that are misinterpreted as causal.

But let’s look for ourselves. This Time articles from 2012 cites a large cohort study. The cohort study finds an increase in time spent sitting and all cause mortality (so for instance those who self-report a lot of sitting are more likely to be murdered, or commit suicide, or die in a car accident). But not much more likely. The associations are quite weak. Those (above age 45) who sit up to 11 hours per day are only 15% more likely to die in 3 year period than those who sit practically not at all – less than 4 hours a day.* But that didn’t stop the report’s authors from making statements like this:

That morning walk or trip to the gym is still necessary, but it’s also important to avoid prolonged sitting. Our results suggest the time people spend sitting at home, work and in traffic should be reduced by standing or walking more.

* How does one sit less than four hours a day? How is that even possible?

That’s a very small gap, 15%. It is so small that it ought not be trusted one bit.

Very small effects (weak findings) tend to disappear or invert if you look at the data more closely. Here are some examples from this very study where the data suggests that more sitting lowers mortality:

  • Age 55-64: lower mortality among those who sit 8-11 hours/day than those who sit 4-8 hours
  • Ages 75+: lower mortality among those who sit 4-8 hours per day than those who sit <4 hours per day
  • Participants with cardiovascular disease or diabetes: lower mortality among the 4-8 hours group than among the <4 hours group
  • Overweight participants: lower mortality among the 4-8 hours group than among the <4 hours group
  • Among those with higher levels of physical activity: lower mortality among the 4-8 hours group than among the <4 hours group

Were the premise correct, none of these should be the case, right?

Now, those who sit A LOT (11+ hours a day) do have significantly higher mortality rates, but we ought to wonder about them, being at one extreme end of the spectrum. We might reasonably wonder if they have other problems that cause them to both sit around a lot and to die.

That’s one hypothesis. This data set suggests all manner of hypotheses to be rigorously explored. But as evidence to support a forgone conclusion – that sitting harms health – it is unconvincing in the extreme.

So relax. Take a load off.

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