Great American Speech: Lou Gehrig's Farewell to Baseball

"The Luckiest Man on Earth" is a Speech Worth Sharing

Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York. Sports Studio Photos Getty Images Sport

The "Ice Bucket Challenge" that raised funds to cure Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)  has the distinction of being one of the most successful fundraising efforts ever raising over $115 million dollars during  a six-week period (August through mid-September 2014). This challenge went viral after three young men with ALS posted a video that showed them dumping buckets of ice water on their heads in a symbolic stand against the disease.

 They challenged others to film themselves doing the same and encouraged charitable donations as well. On Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, many celebrities and sports figures obliged.

The disease ALS was first identified in 1869, but it wasn’t until 1939 when Lou Gehrig, a popular baseball player for the New York Yankees, brought national attention to the disease. When he learned he had contracted ALS,  Gehrig decided to retire from baseball. Taking a suggestion from the sportswriter Paul Gallico, the New York Yankees held a Recognition Day to honor Gehrig.

On July 4, 1939, 62,000 fans watched as Gehrig delivered a short speech during which he described himself as "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." The text and audio from the speech are on the American Rhetoric website.

ALS, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

There was then, and still is, no cure for this disease. Yet, in spite of this medical death sentence, Gehrig listed the relationships he had with others repeatedly as "a blessing".

First, he thanked the fans:

"I have been to ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans."

He thanked his fellow teammates:

"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."

He thanked the NY Yankee's management team, and he thanked the members of the rival team, the NY Giants:

"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."

He thanked the grounds keepers:

"When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in the white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something."

He thanked his parents: 

"When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it's a blessing." 

And, he thanked his wife:

"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."

In this brief text, Gehrig demonstrated both incredible grace and excellent speech-craft. 

According to several accounts, the speech was broadcast with multiple microphones, but only 286 words of the speech were actually recorded on tape. The readibility of this speech is grade 7, so this speech is literary informational text that can be easily shared with both middle and high school students.

 

Students can learn that Gehrig's rhetorical strategies included the anaphora, which is the repetition of a first word or phrase in successive phrases. The result was a speech that followed a  pattern of thanks to those who had made him "the luckiest man" despite his fatal medical diagnosis. 

Giving students speeches to analyze is one way for teachers in all subject areas to increase background knowledge about history and American culture. Teaching this farewell address meets the Common Core Literacy Standards for History and Social Studies, that require students to determine word meanings, appreciate the nuances of words, and steadily expand their range of words and phrases.

Beyond the lesson in literary analysis, teaching this speech also provides students an example of a gracious sports hero, a model of humility.

There also is the opportunity to acquaint students with the other baseball greats. According to press reports, at the conclusion of the speech, the famous Yankee slugger Babe Ruth walked up and put his arm around his former teammate. 

Gehrig's status as a sports hero brought much attention to ALS;  two years after his diagnosis at the age of 35, he died. The ice bucket challenge that began in 2014 has also brought money and attention to finding a cure for the disease. In September 2016, scientists announced that the ice bucket challenge funded research​ that discovered  a gene that may contribute to the disease.

All this support to find a cure for ALS?  In the words of Lou Gehrig, "That’s something."