Friday, July 3, 2009

The Iron Horse is at the Hitching Post

Tomorrow shall mark the 233rd birthday of these United States. And tomorrow shall, as well, mark the seventieth anniversary of the farewell address that Lou Gehrig gave to the assembled crowd at Yankee Stadium. A crowd that had ostensibly gathered to watch the Yankees play the Washington Senators in a doubleheader (an alien concept in today's MLB - a single-admission doubleheader on the Fourth of July) but had in fact come to the intersection of 161st and River in the Bronx to pay their respects to a man who had shown his respect for the game he loved and the fans who loved it throughout his seventeen-year career.

Lou Gehrig was the type of man whose life was such that after his death, when Hollywood turned his life's story into a movie it was screen legend Gary Cooper ("High Noon" for those of you who need a point of reference) who portrayed him in "The Pride of the Yankees". While Gehrig is undoubtedly known to and by baseball fans of all ages for his consecutive games played streak, he was much more than the guy who manned his position 2,130 times in a row. He wore #4 to signify his spot in the Yankees batting order - directly behind #3, a portly, spindly-legged gent named George Herman Ruth. In the all-time annals of "protection for one's slugger" none offered better protection than Gehrig did for The Babe. Over the course of his seventeen seasons in pinstripes, Gehrig won the American League MVP award twice and the Yankees won six World Series championships. In the years bookended by 1926 and 1938, Gehrig never drove in fewer than 112 runs and during that stretch had eight seasons in which he drove in more than 150 runs.

And yet for all he did on the field, he is best remembered for something he said. On the Fourth of July 1939, having already been forced to retire by the disease that would take his life less than two years later, he stood before a packed house at Yankee Stadium and proclaimed himself to be "the luckiest man on the face of the earth". In simple, straight language spoken from his heart, Gehrig expressed gratitude for all he had been given the opportunity to enjoy and not one shred of self-pity about the burden that he had been asked to shoulder.

Tomorrow Major League Baseball shall honor the 70th anniversary of Gehrig's farewell speech. During the 7th inning stretch in every park tomorrow, the home team shall read Gehrig's words. They are words that, while spoken by a dying man and a professional athlete, resonate far beyond that particular set of circumstances. And hopefully at some point tomorrow, whatever your Independence Day plans are and wherever they shall take you, you shall have a chance to hear Gehrig's words. And hopefully you and me and all of us can take a moment to reflect upon them and to take them to heart. We are in the midst of some pretty hairy economic times in this country, we have soldiers committed to armed conflicts in several theatres and - with apologies to Timbuk 3 - the future is so uncertain we may feel as if we have to wear paper bags over our heads.

Yet, reasons abound to hold steady and to stay positive. And if you are at a loss for self-propelled inspiration, then look to Gehrig for it. It is easily found:

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans."

"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. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky."

"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. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter - that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body - it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed - that's the finest I know."

"So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."

As have we all and as do we all. Words to live by. On Independence Day and every day thereafter.


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