In 1939, the Fourth of July coincided with Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium. A day usually reserved for parades and fireworks was transformed into one of the most solemn, heart-wrenching, and inspiring moments in the history of sports. It was here, before 62,000 fans, that Gehrig proclaimed he was the “Luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Just a few months before Gehrig’s speech, the Yankees opened their season against the Boston Red Sox. Between the two teams, there were 11 future Hall of Famers and many other notable all-stars. The reliable Gehrig manned first base as he had done for over two thousand consecutive games. The series also marked the debut of a young ballplayer named Ted Williams. It was the only time Williams and Gehrig would face one another. Newsreel cameras were there to capture the event:
Opening Day, April 20, 1939. Universal Newsreels: UN-11-765
Opening Day program from the Universal News Production Files: UN-11-765. Pages 6 and 7 show the lineups for the two teams. (To navigate, click the arrows to advance through the program. Click on the image to open a new window with a larger image.)
After a few games into the season, Gehrig’s performance had noticeably declined. On May 2, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup for the first time in 2,130 consecutive games. Unbeknownst to him, he would never play again. Once again, newsreels were there to capture the moment:
Universal News UN-11-768.
The script from the production files reads: “In spring training camp, Lou Gehrig felt sure he could benefit the Yankee lineup, but the veteran first baseman voluntarily benched himself in Detroit before the Yankee-Tigers game! Thus ends a phenomenal series of over two thousand straight games. But he hopes to comeback in warmer weather. We hope he does!
Soon after Gehrig’s streak came to an end, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease he is synonymous with to this day. After hearing the news, the Yankee clubhouse made arrangements to honor their longtime all-star.
On July 4, 1939, the Yankees played a double header against the Washington Senators. Between the two games, players, coaches, and other notable figures came out to shower Gehrig with gifts and kind words. The Yankees also began a new baseball tradition as they retired Gehrig’s number 4 uniform.
Gehrig almost did not speak. As the ceremony came to an end and the microphones were being hauled away, the “Iron Horse” decided to say a few words. As Gehrig fought away tears, he made one of the most iconic speeches of all time. Newsreel cameras were on the scene:
Universal News: UN-11-786
It seems appropriate that Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day fell on Independence Day. In his famous Declaration, Thomas Jefferson ascribed that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Despite his grim diagnosis and tragic decline, Gehrig embraced Jefferson’s unalienable rights. As he famously said, “I may have gotten a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
This Fourth of July marks the 238th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. Both reflect the essence of what it means to be an American.