Saturday, 4 July 2009


Today, the Fourth of July, is the sixtieth anniversary of Lou Gehrig's speech July 4th 1939, at the old Yankee Stadium, the one they tore down last year, where he announced to the overflow crowd that he felt he was 'the luckiest man on the face of the earth'.

Gehrig was the Iron Horse, the man who set the major league record for most consecutive games played, a number, 2,130, I can even now write from memory. That record would stand for half a century. He was indestructible, at least until he was diagnosed with what we now call 'Lou Gehrig's Disease', Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. He would be dead less than two years after making that speech.

Gehrig was a native New Yorker, the child of immigrants, who'd starred in football and baseball at Columbia before signing with the Yankees, and who, alongside Babe Ruth, made up the greatest pair of hitting teammates baseball has ever seen. They were baseball's glamour team, playing in its finest stadium, in the nation's and soon to be the world's busiest most powerful city. That's Lou with the young Joe DiMaggio and Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York. Yet Gehrig, even by the relatively civilised nature of celebrity in that era, eschewed the spotlight. Where Ruth was larger than life and lived that way, Gehrig was Clark Kent, who became Superman only when the pinstripes went on.

You can find a nice little excerpt from his speech, taken from Ken Burns' Baseball documentary, here. If you look a little further, on the site for example, you can find longer extracts, and some of what the Babe said as well. You can also find the clip from 'Pride Of The Yankees' with Gary Cooper; the amazing thing is how Gehrig is so much handsomer than Cooper, whose baseball playing in the film fails to live up to Gehrig's power and grace (see that MLB video if you doubt me).

On the Fourth there are always moments that make me shake my head in wonder at the life I've left behind me; Joey Chesnut eating a world record 68 hot dogs at Coney Island for example. There are always moments when I wonder why I outgrew the simple wonder of patriotism so easily, yet it seems so monolithic at times, and carries with it an increasingly compulsory blinkering.

Yet there are also times I miss the fireworks, the flags, the hot dogs. The barbeques with family and friends, the baseball, and most of all that sense that things like Lou Gehrig's modesty and grace still live on to inspire us, not commercialised, not manipulated, not spoiled, and that I could feel as lucky as I did the first time I was told about it.

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