Lou Gehrig is remembered for three things: his greatness on the field, a speech, and the disease that claimed his life. He left a legacy in baseball and for those facing adversity, especially those battling ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Today is the 80th anniversary of Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium and Gehrig delivering baseball’s most famous speech. He did not focus on his problems, rather he spoke of the good in his life. A life cut short less than two years later.
On the diamond, Lou Gehrig was a tremendous competitor, forming the toughest duo in baseball history with Babe Ruth. Gehrig played 17 seasons for the Yankees, 1923 to 1939. In 2,164 Games, Gehrig collected 2,721 Hits, 534 Doubles, 163 Triples, 493 Home Runs, 1,995 RBI, scored 1,888 Runs, Stole 102 Bases, drew 1,508 Walks, 790 Strike Outs, .340 BA, .447 OBP, .632 SLG, and 1.080 OPS. Gehrig’s career numbers ensured his enshrinement into Cooperstown, even without his special election in 1939.
Putting Lou Gehrig’s greatness into perspective, consider his all time rankings today. Gehrig ranks 64th in Hits with 2,271. He is 42nd in Doubles with 534 and 33rd in Triples with 163. His 493 Home Runs still ranks him 28th. His 1,995 RBI are seventh all time. Gehrig’s 1,190 extra base hits are 11th most and his 5,060 total bases are 19th all time. His 1,888 runs scored rank 12th all time. He walked 1,508 times, 17th most. A career .340 hitter, 16th best. His .447 OBP is fifth, his .632 SLG and 1.079 OPS both place him third all time. His 179 OPS+ ranks fourth and his 112.3 oWAR places him 14th. 80 years after his final game, Lou Gehrig remains an all time great.
Hall of Fame numbers are not compiled in a few good seasons here and there, they come from excellence year after year. In Gehrig’s 17 seasons with the Yankees, he played fewer than 13 games in three seasons. Playing 14 full seasons before ALS robbed him of his abilities further shows Gehrig’s greatness. The Iron Horse registered eight seasons of 200 or more hits, leading the league in 1931. In 1927 and 1928 he led baseball in Doubles with 52 and 47 respectively. In 1926, his 20 triples paced baseball. Gehrig was the Home Run King three times (1931, 1934, and 1936). He was perfectly placed in Murderers’ Row, leading the league in RBI five times, driving in at least 109 in 13 consecutive seasons. He led baseball in Runs Scored four times, scoring 115 or more Runs in 13 consecutive seasons. The Iron Horse possessed both power and patience at the plate, drawing at least 100 Walks in 11 seasons, leading baseball on three occasions. Gehrig struck out a career high 84 times in 1927, he would never strike out more than 75 times in any other season. Gehrig hit .300 or better in 12 straight seasons, led the league in Slugging twice, OPS three times with 11 consecutive seasons above 1.000. He had five seasons with at least 400 total bases, leading baseball four times. In 1934, Gehrig won the American League Triple Crown with a .363 BA, 49 Home Runs, and 166 RBI. Shockingly he finished fifth in MVP voting behind a trio of Tigers (Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, and Schoolboy Rowe) and teammate Lefty Gomez. Gehrig did win two MVP Awards (1927 and 1936), while finishing in the top five in six other seasons. The Iron Horse was always a MVP contender.
Lou Gehrig was one of the greatest players to ever step on a diamond. (Mark Rucker/ Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
The Yankees during the Gehrig years were seemingly in the World Series every October. Lou Gehrig played in seven Fall Classics. New York won six World Series with Gehrig (1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, and 1938), sweeping their National League opponents four times. Gehrig played in 34 Games with 119 At Bats. He collected 43 Hits, 8 Doubles, 3 Triples, 10 Home Runs, 35 RBI, and scored 30 Runs. He drew 26 walks against 17 Strikeouts. Gehrig hit .361, .483 OBP, .731 SLG, and 1.214 OPS. The Iron Horse helped the Yankees reach and win multiple World Series.
Despite his greatness on the diamond, Lou Gehrig is best remembered for the speech he gave on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Day, as the Yankees honored him as he fought ALS. The Gettysburg Address of Baseball remains one of the most famous moments in baseball history. There is no known full recording of the speech, however we do have a partial recording and a transcript of Gehrig’s words.
“For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such a fine looking men as they’re standing in uniform in this ballpark today? 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 might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”
20 years ago today Cal Ripken Jr. helped to reenergize baseball, by doing what he did best, showing up for work. The Iran Man’s chase of the Iron Horse resonated with fans who had lost faith in the game during the 1994 Players Strike. Ripken was not performing a superhuman feat, he was simply doing his job like the fans who fill the seats at every Major League Baseball stadium during every game of the season. Ripken brought baseball and the fans back together.
The 1994 Players Strike was generally about money. The argument was between the owners and players, millionaire owners fighting against players who were millionaires or who could become millionaires. This in fighting did not sit well with the fans who were seeing the cost of attending a game continue to rise, and who felt the rising prices were slowly pushing them away from the game. The Major League Baseball Players Association wanted a larger piece of the financial pie the game generated, and the owners did not want to share. Not getting lost in the argument, the disagreement and the lack of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement led to the players going out on strike on August 11, 1994. The strike would last 232 days, finally ending on April 2, 1995. The 1994 season ended without the completion of the full 162 game schedule. There were no playoffs, there was no World Series, there was no parade for a World Series champion. The 1994 season never concluded, it only stopped.
Baseball fans were angry. The game had seemingly forgotten its roots; it was no longer a game but a business. While the financial and business issues were resolved, the damage done to the game seemed to have forever changed the game, and not for the better. Baseball had angered the people it depended on for its very existence, the fans. Repairing the damage inflicted from the Strike looked as though it could take years or even a generation to repair, if it was ever going to be able to be repaired. However, baseball was able to repair some of the damage and reengage the fans thanks to what started on May 30, 1982.
On Sunday May 30, 1982 the Baltimore Orioles lost to the Toronto Blue Jays 6-0 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore before a paid attendance of 21,632. The Orioles collected only one hit that day, a fifth inning single to left by catcher Rick Dempsey. Batting 8th, behind Dempsey was third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken went 0 for 2 with a walk. This otherwise forgettable game was game 1 of 2,632 consecutive that Ripken would play.
Fast forward more than 2,000 games and the start of the delayed 1995 Major League season. Every day Ripken grew closer to the magical 2,130 consecutive games played record set by Hall of Fame player Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse was pure baseball. He was a great hitter, a great slugger, and a gracious man. When ALS took away his gift to play the game he did not make a public scene about how bad his luck was, he did not he draw attention to himself. The media speculation swirled about what was wrong with Gehrig, but he never took part in the circus. Instead, he quietly and with dignity stepped aside so as to not hurt the team. When the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4, 1939 the dignity and grace with which Gehrig carried himself was on full display. Addressing the sold out crowd, Gehrig spoke of the people who he was lucky to know, his family, and how lucky he was. Lou Gehrig was more than a ball player; he was a man, he was class, he was grace.
Class. Dignity. Grace. These were the qualities baseball needed in 1995. These are the qualities Cal Ripken Jr. put on display every day. Baseball observers and fans can appreciate a player who is chasing .400, chasing Dimaggio’s 56 game hit streak, chasing the multitude of records that elevate a player above his contemporaries and places him among the greats. While these pursuits are great, they were not the pursuit that would galvanize people to return to baseball in 1995. Baseball needed someone and something the people watching in the stadium, on television, or listening on the radio could relate to. They could all relate to the consecutive game streak.
Those of use that have not been blessed with the athletic gifts necessary to play sports on the highest level do not have off seasons. Every morning we wake up and go to work. We put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and then we do it all over again tomorrow. This is the rhythm of life. It is a grind, you show up and work at it. You may not be the best, you may be a compiler. Every day working on your craft, getting a little closer to your potential, even if that potential does not place you among the elites of your chosen field. Cal Ripken Jr. is not the greatest baseball player to take the field. He was an excellent player and a compiler. He had flaws in his game, but he showed up everyday and worked at correcting those flaws. Simply showing up for work resonated with people, they could relate with Ripken and felt he understood what it was like for them to show up to work when they did not feel well or when they had the aches and pains that go along with life. Ripken reminded people why baseball mattered to them personally again. He helped to bridge the gap and overcome the anger and animosity that grew out of the Strike.
September 6, 1995 marked the 2,131st game the Baltimore Orioles had played since that Sunday afternoon in 1982. Cal Ripken Jr. had come to work sick, injured, healthy, stressed, happy, and sad but most of all he had shown up to work every day and had done his job. On a Wednesday night in Baltimore at Camden Yards, the Iron Man pass the Iron Horse. The Orioles won 4-2 over the California Angels and Ripken went 2 for 4 with a solo home run that night, but it did not matter. What mattered was the joy in the stadium, the joy in seeing a player achieve something that had no short cut, no dollar sign, no superhuman feat. Simply Cal Ripken Jr. showed up to work, again.
The memories from the night are plenty. The standing ovation for Ripken that seemed to last forever. The announcers on television understanding that words were not necessary. The Orioles players pushing a reluctant, and almost embarrassed Ripken out of the dugout to take a victory lap around the field. Everyone, fans, umpires, opposing players, and teammates applauding Ripken’s accomplishment. Cal Ripken Jr. helped to save the game of baseball that September night. He showed baseball fans that the game had not been ruined by the money and the business, it still was a children’s game played by adults. He showed the players and owners that the game does not belong to them, it belongs to the fans.
Baseball and life are a grind. You show up every day working towards a perfection that is impossible to reach. You show up because it is your job to put in an honest days work to receive and honest days pay. Cal Ripken Jr. saved the game of baseball by reminded all of us this 20 years ago.