By Richard Sandomir
When Lou Gehrig delivered his "luckiest man" speech on July 4, 1939, his oratorical skills were unknown. He could transform the mood of a stadium with his bat, but what could he do with words to convey the end of his career, if not his life? He lacked the magnetism of the man-child Babe Ruth, whose Brobdingnagian personality captivated the press and fans. Gehrig was an introverted mama's boy, so lacking in charisma that writer Niven Busch had declared, in a 1929 New Yorker profile, that Gehrig was "not fitted in any way to have a public."
Yet in fewer than 300 words, Gehrig transformed how the public viewed him. No longer a magnificent ballplayer, he was a dying young man, grateful for his life, not complaining about his limited future. He gave them the essential Gehrig: no different than the decent man he had always been, but now faced with altered circumstances. He did not sound like a professional speaker. He lacked a baritone like Gary Cooper, his doppelganger in The Pride of the Yankees, which made Gehrig's speech so much more effective. Gehrig simultaneously became a symbol of courage and the soul of the Yankees' cold-as-steel empire. Had he died in 1971, not 1941, he would have been recalled for his statistics and humility. But by offering nothing but gratitude, for a life that would end two years later, days before his 38th birthday, he was canonized a sports saint.
Fans could see that he was thinner and weaker than he had been the previous season. He had pulled himself permanently from the Yankees lineup in early May, unable to perform at a professional level. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was laying waste to him. He wore his pinstripes, but his uniform was too baggy even for the era; he had lost weight and almost certainly muscle tone. Yankees president Ed Barrow led him onto the field and then left him to walk on his own, which pleased Gehrig's wife Eleanor, who watched from a box seat. As the ceremonies crept toward the speech, Gehrig initially was too moved to speak. Manager Joe McCarthy nudged him to the bank of microphones.
When he spoke, one brilliant line reverberated through the stadium and continues to echo as part of our cultural narrative. It was the second sentence:
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."
How could anyone whose career had come to such a sudden halt, whose life was imperiled, think of himself as lucky? "Lucky" is a peculiar word. It suggests a type of randomness, a capriciousness one would associate with a lottery win. For Gehrig to think of himself as "lucky" suggests an extremely optimistic view of the world, perhaps one borrowed from his faith or his marriage. But Gehrig went further, describing himself as "the luckiest man," a psychological leap for even the most selfless among us.
Gehrig's retirement speech remains unmatched, 75 years later, because it was not simply a retirement speech. Athletes routinely say farewell -- on fields, on courts and at press conference -- and actors portray them saying farewell on film. Sometimes the athletes weep; sometimes the fans weep. When Magic Johnson announced he had the HIV virus, he made news, of course, and he was prescient about being able to move on, enjoy his life and not say farewell. He did not describe himself as "lucky." In Brian's Song, one of sports cinema's finest speeches was made not by the dying athlete, but by Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers: "I love Brian Piccolo. And I'd like all of you to love him, too. And so tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him."
Gehrig's speech, in the generally accepted original text, is on a different level. To read it is to recognize its eloquence, architecture and generosity, as well as a reservoir of personal modesty that is rare today:
Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about 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 consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow. 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 groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies -- that's something.
When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter -- that's something. 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. 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 may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you.
The speech has been dubbed, with some hyperbole, "baseball's Gettysburg address." The connection to Lincoln is strained, perhaps, but the speech is still so good and so concise that it suggests a ghostwriter, perhaps a pal like Fred Lieb of the Sporting News. There are many nice touches, and there is nothing hackneyed. Gehrig spoke of "grand men," "that wonderful fellow" and "that smart student of psychology." Three sentences begin with "When you have," emphasizing his message through parallel structure. Notice the short phrases that followed the dash in five sentences: "that's something," "it's a blessing" and "that's the finest I know." By breaking up each thought, he let his thankfulness linger, as if he were punctuating those thoughts with a "Wow!" In the last sentence, he returned to his misfortune, elevating his disease to a "tough break" yet still minimizing its severity.
"The speech resonates, because it speaks to everyone who has suffered illness or lost a loved one," said Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, a 2005 biography. "Gehrig says we shouldn't think about ourselves and whatever troubles we might have. Instead, we should think about all the good fortunes we've had in life. To die is to lose everything, everyone we've loved, but he looks at it from another angle and says death helps him see all he has been blessed with -- his family, his friends, his teammates, his career. He chooses life. He chooses optimism."
Newspapers did not provide transcripts of the speech. Gehrig was beloved, but no newspaper would have sent a stenographer in anticipation of a memorable speech. Eig's book includes a different version, patched together from newspaper accounts and newsreels, but the differences are not major, and Gehrig may have deviated from the text he'd prepared. In The New York Times, for example, John Drebinger seems to have mashed up the opening and closing of the speech, making the most memorable line less potent in the process: "You've been reading about my bad break for weeks now. But today I think I'm the luckiest man alive. I now feel more than ever that I have much to live for."
Eleanor, a fierce protector of her husband's legend, promoted the "official" version in her 1976 memoir, My Luke and I, but it had been on her mind for much longer. In a letter dated April 16, 1942, she guaranteed to Pride producer Samuel Goldwyn that the copy of the speech she had provided to him was accurate. "You can count on the wording being perfect," she told him, "because Lou and I worked on it the night before it was delivered, and naturally, my memory would not fail me in this instance."
The "luckiest man" speech was spoken in the pre-television era. Newsreels and radio reports would not receive afterlives for decades, if ever. Gehrig's speech would have become a distant memory had Eleanor not signed a deal with Goldwyn to make The Pride of the Yankees, six weeks after her husband's death. Lacking a complete video of the original, Cooper's rendition has become the version we remember, if only by default. It is hard to imagine another actor's rendering of an historic speech becoming so closely identified with the original. No actor recreating a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King or Winston Churchill has ever been as successful as Cooper.
Had Goldwyn chosen a lesser actor (or one less embraced by the audience), the "luckiest man" speech's power might have faded long ago. "If not for the movie," Eig said, "the speech may well have been forgotten, especially considering the absence of a complete film version. On the other hand, throughout history, great speeches have been handed down, using whatever medium was available at the time. The retelling is always important. Without the retelling, many of the greatest oratories would have been lost."
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Cooper was not Gehrig's physical type. He was born in Montana to parents raised in England, and he could not play baseball. (You can see his lack of skill in Meet John Doe, released the year before, as he mimics a pitching motion.) He was a lanky horseman, while Gehrig was muscular with thick thighs. But Cooper's characters were often quiet men of honor, like Sgt. Alvin C. York, the Medal of Honor-winning World War I soldier; Long John Willoughby, who goes along with a con to become "John Doe," the voice of the poor, forgotten masses; and Marshal Will Kane in High Noon, who must decide, on the day he was to retire as sheriff, whether to face down murderous outlaws gunning for him or abandon the small town he had made safe.
Still, Gehrig was a different sort of character for Cooper: a real person, but more contemporary than York. He was not a fictional creation like Kane, who could be compared to other western heroes but not to a real sheriff. "Gehrig, that's no cinch," Cooper told The Saturday Evening Post in a 1956 career retrospective. "Quite a responsibility, in fact, when you think of all those millions of people who knew him, watched him, knew just how he handled himself. You can't trick up a character like that with mannerisms, bits of business. I honestly didn't want to take the part, but Mrs. Gehrig came out, and she told me that's the way she wanted it."
I have long wondered what Cooper was thinking, as he stepped to the microphones at the "other" Wrigley Field, in Los Angeles, the stand-in for Yankee Stadium and several other ballparks depicted in Pride. He had feared losing the role because he could not play baseball. He was tutored by Lefty O'Doul, a former National League batting champion, to become a ballplayer who hit and threw left-handed. Bill Dickey, the Yankees' catcher and one of the players who appeared in Pride, also gave Cooper remedial help. In addition to any insights Dickey provided about his late roommate, Cooper may also have leafed through scrapbooks that Eleanor compiled.
Mimicking Gehrig proved difficult, if not impossible. It was long reported the film of Cooper in action was reversed, so that whatever he did right-handed looked like it was being done left-handed. (A frame-by-frame study last year by Tom Shieber, senior curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame, found the "flipping" technique could not have been used, at least not beyond the close-up shots which Cooper himself had confirmed. Flipping every shot that included Cooper in action would have meant reversing the letters on all the players' uniforms, not just on Gehrig's, and everyone would have had to run to third base to achieve the effect that they were running to first.)
In the end, it did not matter. However subpar Cooper's attempts at becoming a left-handed ballplayer, he was not there to showcase his athletic prowess. There was not much baseball action in Pride, and Goldwyn never wanted to make a baseball film.
Goldwyn knew even less about baseball than Cooper, but he knew enough about selling movie tickets to order that Pride stick with the playful Lou-and-Ellie love story and their brave reaction to his illness. Goldwyn recognized the emotional wallop of Gehrig's speech. He'd cried when he watched the newsreels, A. Scott Berg wrote in his biography of the producer, and soon after acquired rights to Gehrig's story. In a lovely coincidence, Busch, the writer who had once derided Gehrig's lack of personality, had become a story editor for Goldwyn and ran the newsreels for him.
The script and narrative, part of a collection of production documents provided to me by collector Daniel Lovegrove, distilled what reporters and columnists wrote about the speech at the time and added dramatic interpretation and license. In a script dated Feb. 11, 1942, screenwriters Herman Mankiewicz and Jo Swerling laid out the scene:
The roar of the crowd is like a sustained note from a mighty organ. Lou waits for it to subside but it doesn't. For him this is crucifixion as well as triumph, because he knows he'll have to die twice and perhaps the worst ordeal for him is that little death known as Goodbye. It's just like that guy said -- the last half of the last inning. Why don't they stop cheering? Why don't they let him speak? This is the dream he had when he was a kid, but he didn't know it would be so hard. He loves Mom and Pop, they brought him into the world, and he loves Ellie -- she's been a wonderful pal, but most of all he loves this thing he's got to leave -- baseball. Why isn't Blake here to tell him what to say -- how to say it? What can he say? There's a game to be played and he mustn't hold it up. Without lifting his head, he raises his hand, and as if by magic, the great roar subsides and the ensuing silence is frightening. When Lou speaks, his voice echoes over the stilled stadium.
Their scene-setting -- a crucifixion! magic! -- had roots in an expansive outline written by the former New York Daily sports columnist Paul Gallico (who years later wrote The Poseidon Adventure) and screenwriter Abem Finkel (who co-wrote Sergeant York). Their 100-page narrative is dated five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and it formed the basis for Gallico's breezy hagiography of Gehrig, which was released at about the same time as the film.
The unnamed emcee asks for quiet, but the cheers continue:
Instead of quiet, it appears that the cheers redouble. Hats are being thrown into the air, handkerchiefs waved, torn paper is flying. He speaks into the microphone, but the half-hysterical crowd still cheering for Gehrig drowns out even the loudspeakers. Then, seeing that it is impossible to quell the crowd, he goes over to Lou, takes him by the arm gently and leads him over to the microphone and then walks away, leaving him standing there alone. Tears are falling from his eyes.
He dries them and suddenly raises his head and faces the huge throng. The storm of sound is cut off instantaneously as though by magic. For a few seconds, there is such absolute silence that it sounds almost louder than the cheers. Then slowly, his voice sounding cracked and brassy through the public address system, and echoing, Gehrig begins to speak. His speech is slow and halting because of his deep emotion, and is frequently interrupted by bursts of cheering and applause.
Note that in the script, it's the emcee who leads Gehrig over to the microphone, not McCarthy.
The Mankiewicz-Swerling version of the speech is different from the one Gehrig delivered. It's less detailed, and it shifts the "luckiest man" line to the end, where it would have the most impact:
I have been walking onto ball fields for 16 years, and I've never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. I have had the great honor to have played with these great veteran ballplayers on my left -- Murderers Row, our championship team of 1927. I have had the further honor of living and playing with these men on my right -- the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees of today.
I have been given fame and undeserved praise by the boys up there behind the wire in the press box -- my friends, the sportswriters. I have worked under the two greatest managers of all-time -- Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy.
I have a mother and father who fought to give me health and a solid background in my youth. I have a wife, a companion for life, who has shown me more courage than I ever knew.
People say that I've had a bad break. But today -- today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Many of the people Gehrig had thanked are left out of the shortened speech, including Eleanor's mother, and it is clear Eleanor would have preferred every word spoken by her husband be repeated by Cooper. "You see," Eleanor wrote to Goldwyn, "the whole charm of the closing scene appears to be the fact that Lou thanked every one even remotely connected with his career for making him the 'luckiest man on earth.' It never occurred to him to give himself credit for being what he was. In other words, complete humility, which is true greatness."
Pride ends after the speech, as Cooper walks back to the dugout, puts his hand on the dugout roof and descends into darkness, and an umpire shouts, "Play ball!"
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Gary Cooper was a major star before he made Pride, mentioned along with Cary Grant, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda. Cooper had already made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Westerner, Meet John Doe and Sergeant York, and he would later star in For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Fountainhead and High Noon. Sergeant York earned him his first Academy Award for best actor, High Noon his second. He was nominated for Pride but lost to James Cagney for Yankee Doodle Dandy.
"Cooper was an icon, famous for not saying much, and seeming to do very little in front of the camera, until his image arrived on the screen and possessed it -- usually in silence, doubt, shyness and steadfast uncertainty," David Thomson, the film historian, wrote recently in The New Republic.
Far from the United States, more than a year after the release of Pride, Cooper would begin to grasp the importance of the "luckiest man" speech. In October 1943, Cooper traveled to the South Pacific with actresses Una Merkel and Phyllis Brooks to entertain American troops. "I was the comic relief," he told the Saturday Evening Post, acting out Jack Benny scripts the soldiers had not yet heard. "Me, as Jack Benny!" he exclaimed.
One night in Port Moresby, New Guinea, he was dozing in his tent when a cloudburst threatened to cancel the night's show. But 15,000 troops were waiting on a muddy slope. So Cooper, Merkel and Brooks headed to the stage covered with canvas tarps, along with accordionist Andy Arcari. When they finished their act, a soldier shouted, "Hey, Coop, how about Lou Gehrig's farewell speech to the Yankees?" The soldiers had recently seen Pride, so it was not a surprise that more troops demanded he play the Iron Horse again.
"The boys began to shout in union for the farewell speech," he said. He asked that they let him step inside a tent, to give him time to remember the speech as well as he could. "I don't want to leave out anything," he said he told them. As he jotted down the words, a tent pole slipped, and rain poured down his neck. Finally, with the speech done, he came out and recited it. "It was a silent bunch that listened to it," he wrote.
After that, he said, no matter where the troupe went on their 24,000-mile tour -- to Doddura, Milen Bay, Goodenough Island, Hollandia, Lae and Darwin -- new requests came for the speech. "They were the words of a brave American who had only a short time to live," Cooper later recalled, "and they meant to something to those kids in the Pacific."
Gehrig's speech turned out to be the most meaningful and enduring lines Cooper ever said on film, resonating in our collective memory even more than the stoic bravery of Marshal Kane in High Noon. Even 75 years later, Gehrig's words continue to make us admire him, as we contemplate the impulse that made him, with his body withering, believe that he was lucky.
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Richard Sandomir is an award-winning sports and television columnist for The New York Times and author of several books.