Friday, July 4, 2014

The hero of my first book in the USA

One of the great moments at Yankee Stadium on July 4,
1939 -- Lou Gehrig hugged by Babe Ruth. (
      Happy Fourth of July and happy Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.
      This is, as you might have heard or read the past couple of days, the 75th anniversary of the tribute to Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium and the immortal speech he gave that day -- one of baseball's most famous events.
      Almost at the start, he said the words the baseball world remembers: "... today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth."
      This week, a couple of friends have sent me either the entirety of the speech (which I will add below) or links to it, and I have seen a half-dozen Facebook posts about it, too.
       It was a very short speech, but a poignant and powerful one -- and one from a man who, by accounts I've read, was a vanilla, straight-laced personality ... much the opposite of his more famous Yankees teammate. Babe Ruth was an overpowering, flamboyant figure -- on the field and off. Gehrig was almost as big a star on the field, but with a quiet, workmanlike demeanor.
       I decided almost 57 years ago that Lou Gehrig would be one of my heroes for all time.
       Mickey Mantle was my favorite Yankees player of my boyhood and young adulthood, and my favorite forever. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are the heroes of my 50s/60s years.
       There were lots of Yankees first basemen in my lifetime I rooted for: Bill "Moose" Skowron, even Mantle for a few years, Joe Pepitone, Chris Chambliss, Don Mattingly, Tino Martinez, Jason Giambi and now Mark Teixeira.
       But the best Yankees first baseman ever? They retired that designation at the same time Mr. Gehrig's No. 4 became the first number retired in baseball history.
       Still, I have a personal reason why Gehrig was special: The first book I read completely in the United States -- not counting the learn-to-read primers -- was a kids biography on Lou Gehrig.
       I was born six years after Lou died. I did not know anything about him or the New York Yankees when I came to the U.S. in January 1956. Even though I became a Yankees fan that year, I still did not know much about their history or about Gehrig until a year later.
      Here's a reason why: I couldn't read English all that well, other than the first- and second-grade primers.
       But by the fall of 1957, when I began fifth grade in Mrs. Cooper's class in room 6E at Sunset Acres Elementary, I could read well enough and what fascinated me most in the little library in that classroom was the biographies of famous Americans.
       So I read about the childhood days of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, George Washington Carver, Babe Ruth ... and Lou Gehrig.
       I loved Gehrig's story the most, read it three or four times, as I remember.
       He was left-handed, his parents were immigrants who barely spoke English, he loved sports and he was a dutiful son (maybe this is the one part that didn't exactly fit me). Oh, and he was a great athlete (I didn't have that in common with him, either).
       But I loved his story, except of course for the tragic end. And a couple of years later, when my Dad purchased a long-play record of great moments in sports broadcasting, Gehrig's speech was one of my favorite numbers.
       And while we're on favorite numbers, Gehrig's uniform number was 4. Which is why I wore No. 4 when I first played on a team in the late 1950s. (Only made it better that my favorite Shreveport Sports player of that era, second baseman Lou Klimchock, in the 1959 season also wore No. 4.
       The Fourth of July obviously has had great meaning in the U.S. since 1776. If you're a Yankees fan, you probably realized it also meant the birthday of our Yankee Doodle Dandy, the blustery team owner/bully, George M. Steinbrenner III. One year, 1983, it meant a no-hitter pitched by Dave Righetti against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium -- the first no-hitter by a Yankee since Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
       But mostly, every year since 1939, it meant Gehrig, his "day" and his speech.
       It came only weeks after he could play no more, after he took himself out of the lineup and ended his "untouchable" record of 2,130 consecutive games played (Cal Ripken Jr. made it touchable in 1995), after it was obvious to all around him that something physically was dreadfully wrong.
       No one knew much then about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is now commonly called Lou Gehrig's Disease. We all know now, it's fatal. We still don't have a cure. When I think of this loss of the central nervous system, and its debilitating effects, I think of Gehrig and Jim "Catfish" Hunter and our high school/college friend Larry Alexander. And it's so sad.
       Gehrig's story, his devotion to his parents and his wife, his brilliant baseball career and the disease that ended it and then his life a little less than two years after July 4, 1939, was told in the movie The Pride of the Yankees, released a year after his death.
       Babe Ruth plays himself in the movie, but the script doesn't touch the fractious relationship of the two great stars in their latter years with the Yankees (they were good friends at first, but Ruth's often outrageous behavior dismayed the Gehrig family.) Several other Yankees are in it, too.
       I've seen the movie several times, and I know a lot of people love it. Frankly, I think -- and I've read this -- it's corny, cheesy, trite, whatever. Gary Cooper stars in it and he doesn't look much like a ballplayer.
        One of my memories of it is one of the stars is a young Walter Brennan, who plays -- I believe -- a sportswriter (no laughs, please). We remember Walter mostly as the cranky old, limping, wisecracking grandpa on The Real McCoys in the late 1950s/early '60s.         
        But, no question, near the end, where Gary Cooper gives the famous speech, can bring tears. That's not corny or trite.
        "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."
        Lou Gehrig was a hero for all time. I've known that for years.       


  1. FromTim Looney: Well said! I too consider him one of a kind. The Mick will always be my favorite. But the Iron Horse is a legend, and his farewell speech always touches me.

  2. From Jesse Grubbs: You haven't lost your touch, my friend. Another great job. Thanks for the memories.

  3. From Chuck Baker: My love of reading also started with a biography at Sunset Acres. Mrs. Kennedy helped me pick out the biography of Ernie Pyle. Been loving bios every since.

  4. From Casey Baker: I would like a tradition to begin where all major league first basemen wear his
    number (4) each year to honor him.