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'Luckiest man' bids farewell to baseball


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 1999

It is the most famous farewell in baseball.

"Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, barely two months removed from the last of his 2,130 consecutive games, stood before a microphone in Yankee Stadium, his pinstriped uniform slack on a body ravaged by a disease that would come to bear his name.

And with grace, humility and an appreciation for all the good he had been given, he said goodbye to his teammates, his fans, his sport. In the silence of more than 62,000 spectators, the words echoed off the Yankee Stadium facade.

He had long been a hero. Now he became a legend.

The ballpark was home to him for all of his 17 seasons. It was the House that Ruth Built. As great as Gehrig was, he always shunned the spotlight. Not that he could have had it if he'd wanted it. New York was Babe Ruth's town. Gehrig didn't mind. "I'm not a headline guy, and we may as well face it," he said. "I'm just the guy on the Yankees who's in there every day. I'm the fellow who follows the Babe in the batting order."

On June 1, 1925, Wally Pipp begged out of the lineup with baseball's most famous headache -- although "headache" often was the code word for "hangover" back then.

Pipp never started another game for the Yankees. Gehrig played every game for more than 13 years despite, among other things, a broken thumb, a broken toe and back spasms.

His career batting average was .340. In 1938, it slipped to .295, the first time below .300 in 13 seasons. In the first eight games of 1939, he had four hits in 28 at-bats. His teammates grumbled that he was hurting the team.

When he struggled with a routine grounder and was congratulated by teammates for the "good play," he knew it was time. Gehrig removed himself from the game. The next day, May 2, in his role as Yankee captain, he took the lineup card to the umpires at home plate in Detroit. His name wasn't on it. When the Tigers fans realized what was happening, they gave him a standing ovation.

He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive, fatal neurological condition that affects motor skills. He was told about it on his 36th birthday. It would become known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He died June 2, 1941. He was 37.

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939, the five-year waiting period waived due to his illness. On July 4 of that year, the Yankees honored him.

Like Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Gehrig's farewell was to the point and memorable:

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

"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. Who wouldn't have considered it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrows? 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 groundskeeper and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that's something. When you have a father and mother work all their lives so that 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 had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for."

-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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