“Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” — Lou Gehrig Yankee stadium retirement speech, July 4, 1939.
Demonstrating his positivity, resilience, and humility in spite of his ALS diagnosis and premature retirement from Major League Baseball, Lou Gehrig’s words still resonate amongst the sporting and ALS communities.
Later known as the “Iron Man,” Lou Gehrig was born in 1903 to a working-class German immigrant family. As the only one of four children to survive through childhood, Gehrig helped his mother support the family, whilst his father struggled with unemployment, epilepsy, and alcoholism. Gehrig first gained national attention for his athletic talent in 1920 when he hit a grand slam out of the park, an incredible accomplishment for a 17-year-old. He was recruited to Columbia University in New York on a football scholarship, where he had intended to complete an engineering degree.
Despite his aptitude for football, Gehrig thrived as pitcher and first basemen for Columbia’s baseball team in 1923. He helped Columbia set a team record at the Yankee stadium, impressing scouts with his powerful left- handed hitting. Due to his exceptional talent, Gehrig left Columbia earlier than expected: he signed for the Yankees during their 1923 season at the young age of 19.
Gehrig had an impressive baseball career: referred to as the “next Babe Ruth,” the seven-time All-Star played 17 seasons and garnered 6 World Series championship wins, two AL MVP awards, the Triple Crown, and many other honors. Gehrig earned the nickname “The Iron Horse” for his career of durability, and later was honored in the Baseball Hall of fame as a first ballot inductee.
In the midst of his success and widespread popularity, Lou Gehrig’s baseball career came to an abrupt end. In 1938, the beloved Yankees player began losing his strength. After months of fatigue and uncharacteristically weak performances, Gehrig was forced to pull himself out of the lineup. Not long after, he was officially diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and immediately retired. There was no chance of him ever returning to baseball.
On July 4th, 1939, Lou Gehrig stunned the crowd at Yankee Stadium when he announced his retirement in his legendary “Luckiest Man” speech. Standing in front of a crowd of thousands, Gehrig amazed his teammates, coaches, and fans with his grace and bravery in the face of his diagnosis with ALS. “I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.” To this day, ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig disease, as it only became widely known when it ended the career of one of baseball’s most beloved players.
80 years after his death, June 2, 2021 will mark the first official Lou Gehrig Day to commemorate his legacy and raise awareness for ALS, the debilitating disease that abruptly ended his successful baseball career, and later his life. On June 2, 1925, Lou Gehrig began playing as the Yankees’ regular first baseman, which set off his record-breaking consecutive game streak of 2,130 games. Exactly 16 years later on June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig died at the young age of 37, only two years after being diagnosed with ALS.
In honor of Lou Gehrig Day, Major League Baseball athletes, managers, and coaches will pay tribute to Gehrig’s legacy by wearing special patches and wristbands during the games. This day will also remind us that ALS is still currently incurable, with thousands of people dying each year from the disease. On Lou Gehrig Day, the ALS community will remember those that have lost their lives to the disease and remind us that the race to find a cure is imperative.
This is the last article in our series for ALS Awareness Month (May 2021). We hope that our small contribution to raising awareness for ALS has been impactful and interesting, and has encouraged you to be active in the battle against ALS.
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