Looking Back On Lou Gehrig's 'Luckiest Man' Speech, 75 Years Later

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On July 4, 1939, one of baseball's greatest players stepped up to a microphone and delivered what would become one of the most famous speeches in baseball history. Just two years later, Lou Gehrig would die of ALS, a disease that would take on his name.

Gehrig's simple, elegant language — and an iconic rendition of it by actor Gary Cooper in the film "Pride of the Yankees" — have helped the speech live on for decades.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the moment, Richard Sandomir looked at the history of the speech. He joined Karen Given on Only A Game.

KG: Lou Gehrig lived in the public eye but did not love the spotlight in the way his Yankees teammate Babe Ruth did. Do you think Gehrig was reluctant to deliver the speech that day?

RS: I think he knew he had to say something because he and his wife worked on the speech the night before. You get the sense, though, that he didn’t bring a copy of it with him. He spoke extemporaneously. He seemed a little reluctant, perhaps, because he was overwhelmed with emotion, contemplative. He seemed emotional and his voice cracked. He did have tears making his speech.

His personality wasn’t suited to be deep in the spotlight the way Babe Ruth was. He was a mamma’s boy. He was a quiet guy who lived in Babe Ruth’s spotlight, as almost everyone else did. So I think he understood he had to say something, and he said as much as he needed to say, and he said it very, very well.

"This is more than just a retirement speech, this is a farewell speech."

Richard Sandomir

KG: The iconic line from the speech is, “Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” But the whole text is fewer than 300 words, and there are other really touching moments. What other lines stand out to you?

RS: Well, it’s how many people he thanked, and the language that he used. “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. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something.” I mean, he remembers his mother-in-law and the groundskeepers in this speech. It was important for him to mention the big people — teammates, his managers, the president Ed Barrow — he remembered everybody. He grew up with immigrant roots. It was probably his impulse to thank the so-called “little people” whose names you’d never hear.

KG: In your article you make the point that it almost sounds like there was a ghostwriter or speechwriter for this. How so?

RS: [Gehrig] wasn’t known for making speeches. He was a Columbia graduate, so we can’t dismiss his intelligence, but a speech that good that doesn’t seem hackneyed now, 75 years later, to me suggests that he may have had somebody read over it or help write it. I’m just saying, when you look at goodbye speeches for athletes of all sorts in the last 75 years, you haven’t found one that’s structured as well and written as well, so it suggests to me that he had a little help.

KG: It is clear that it is so very well-written, but we also don’t have a great record of exactly what he said. In the age of DVRs and social media, how is it that the speech wasn’t immediately transcribed somewhere?

RS: I don’t think anyone expected something like this. It wasn’t like this was a Presidential inaugural, or something where you’d expect there to be a transcript. What’s interesting to me also is that, when you play that clip of him thanking his teammates, that’s different than the official version. He deviated from the text several times. And to me, it’s interesting that he said the “luckiest man” line early in the speech and in the movie it was moved to the last line of the speech for more cinematic impact.

KG: The film Pride of the Yankees starring Gary Cooper gives us a third version. What are the key differences?

RS: It’s shorter. It thanks fewer people. It’s still nicely written — the speech in the movie is barely 200 words, when in real life it was about 270 — so they left out a lot, but it’s still kind of an amazing speech and it still provokes a lot of emotion.

And if you listen to the little clip that you have of Gehrig, he had a very, very thick Manhattan accent. Cooper was from Montana, and he had this lovely baritone. You just wonder, do people remember the speech because they heard Cooper or because they’ve heard the few clips left of Gehrig from the newsreels? It’s an interesting exercise in memory.

KG: It sounds like a lot of people heard this speech from Cooper himself.

RS: That’s what it seems to me because the movie came out in 1942, and it probably got its second life in TV reruns, and then VCR and DVDs, so I’m almost certain that more people have heard the whole speech through Cooper’s version than anything they’ve heard from Gehrig. We think we know the official version, but what we’ve heard may not be a perfect rendition of what he said.

So yeah, I think Cooper is the reason that the speech has lasted and endured as well. We never heard Lincoln deliver his Gettysburg Address but we kind of know some of the key lines. Imagine if there were a great version done by an actor. That has not endured — whether Raymond Massey or Daniel-Day Lewis or whoever’s played Lincoln, have any of them delivered a speech as memorably as Gary Cooper did of Gehrig’s speech?

KG: Do you think there will ever be another speech in sports that is as remembered as this one?

RS: I don’t think so because I think when athletes retire, it’s often at a press conference where they may have prepared remarks, but they don’t have the resonance -- they’re not dying. They may be dying their athletic death but they’re not dying. So this is more than just a retirement speech, this is a farewell speech.

More on Gehrig's Speech: MLB asked current first basemen to deliver lines from Gehrig's speech and produced this video. (Note: This video is not available on mobile devices. To watch, please visit /onlyagame/2014/07/05/lou-gehrig-speech-anniversary).

This segment aired on July 5, 2014.


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