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 LouGehrig.com. 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.