Derek Jeter helped Major League Baseball commemorate the 70th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech on Saturday, reading the famous line from the icon’s stirring words during a video tribute before the New York Yankees’ game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Yankees also placed a wreath of red, white and blue flowers by Gehrig’s plaque in Monument Park and made a US$25,000 donation to Major League Baseball’s “4 (diamond) ALS” initiative, an effort to raise awareness of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — the disease that forced Gehrig out of baseball in 1939 and took his life two years later.
“It’s one thing to me to have the game taken away from you before it should be but when you start talking about taking your life before it should, the way he handled it was incredible,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who has an uncle with ALS.
“I think any time you can pay tribute to this man I think you should do it because of just the legacy he left and the type of life that he lived,” Girardi said.
ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, attacks nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord and robs from people of the ability to move and speak. The majority of patients die from respiratory failure within five years of the progress of symptoms, though there are exceptions.
All major league players, coaches and on-field personnel wore patches on Saturday to honor Gehrig’s legacy and an initiative logo was displayed on first base in each ballpark to raise awareness.
Gehrig played first for the Yankees for 17 years, hitting .340 with 493 homers and 1,995 RBIs. He hit a record 23 grand slams, had 13 straight seasons of at least 100 RBIs and 100 runs and helped New York win six World Series titles.
The Hall of Famer played in 2,130 straight games before he sat out against the Detroit Tigers on May 2, 1939, unable to play because of the effects of ALS. His consecutive games streak was the major league record before Cal Ripken, Jr broke the mark in 1995.
Two months after Gehrig’s last game, the Yankees retired the Iron Horse’s No. 4 in between games of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators. He was the first player in all any sport to receive such an honor.
In front of about 62,000 fans at the old Yankee Stadium, Gehrig delivered one of the most memorable speeches in sports history. He called his disease a “bad break,” praised his teammates and manager Joe McCarthy and called his wife “a tower of strength.”
The Yankees recreated the speech in a tribute shown on the videoboard of their new ballpark on Saturday, showing Gehrig reciting the first sentence before cutting away to Jeter for the signature line.
“Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth,” the current captain said.
Several Yankees stars, including Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, each read a line from the speech before the video cut back to Gehrig for the final few words.
“It was great to be part of that ceremony,” Teixeira said later. “ALS is obviously a very tough disease and Major League Baseball did a great job today of raising awareness.”
The Yankees also hosted a couple of people diagnosed with ALS, including Michael Goldsmith. The Brigham Young University law professor wrote a column in Newsweek that led to baseball’s ALS initiative.
With help from his son, Goldsmith underhanded a ceremonial first pitch to Teixeira as the crowd gave him with a warm ovation.