By Ernie Palladino
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“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt
“Four score and seven years ago…” — Abraham Lincoln
“Yet, today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” — Lou Gehrig
In the course of American history, that last quote doesn’t stack up to much, not when juxtaposed against a country’s reaction to one of the greatest surprise attacks in history or a president’s commemoration of the bloodiest three days of the Civil War.
But as we approach the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s July 4, 1939 address to an adoring Yankee Stadium crowd, his words still resonate with anyone who is fighting disease today. His immortal “Luckiest Man” speech — delivered just as the effects of the cruel, devastating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis had started the clock on the first baseman’s ultimate mortality — melded incongruously the word “luck” with his own realization that his days were numbered.
It was a heroic speech, full of humble thought and thankfulness for what he had; not the natural fear for what lie ahead. The doctors didn’t know much about ALS back then; only about what they know now, that it can kill you and there’s not much anybody can do to stop it. Now, as then, its diagnosis is a death sentence.
Yet, Gehrig’s speech tells anyone who suffers that certain gifts come with the inevitable outcome. Whether in the throes of cancer, late-stage AIDS or any other fatal illness, a renewed outlook on one’s current plot can offer many a balance to the fear of the final act. It doesn’t make the terror go away. But it offers appreciation for the past joys and blessings, in whatever form they came.
In Gehrig’s case, it was a career full of Yankees World Series championships, Hall of Fame achievement, and the working man’s honor of playing in a then-record 2,130 straight games over 15 years. Decades before it was customary for opponents to laud stars from conquering adversaries, Gehrig received tokens from the hated New York Giants and the day’s doubleheader guest Washington Senators.
With typical humility, Gehrig recognized it only as a function of fate smiling on him, an odd sentiment for such a day. He said as much in one of the forgotten passages.
“Sure, I’m lucky,” he said. “When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat — and vice versa — sends you a gift, that’s something.”
The Yankees will kick off MLB’s commemoration of the speech Wednesday by giving the first 18,000 fans a Lou Gehrig bobblehead. It’s a silly little gesture, this hand-sized ceramic with a springed head which bounces this way and that when you poke it. Certainly the 62,000 who attended Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day would have stood aghast had baseball come up with such an idea in that cultured, refined era. They might have torn down the old joint.
But this is now, and those stupid things have become a sign of honor. Derek Jeter has one. Mariano Rivera had one. Heavens, even the Mets’ Lucas Duda got one last year as reputational inflation struck Citi Field.
It’s OK. The goal — MLB’s attempt to celebrate the speech’s anniversary and by extension raise awareness about ALS — is a good one. Gehrig will probably cringe upstairs, but he’d understand.
Fans, too, should understand that Gehrig’s speech was much more than a bunch of words strung together in pretty sentences. It told us to be thankful for what we have now because tomorrow is not promised. It showed us the humility of a great player who deserved more than a horrible death two years later, but pushed all that aside to celebrate life that day.
Gehrig taught a lesson on July 4, 1939. His speech, the greatest ever delivered in the sports arena, continues to teach today.
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