75th Anniversary of Lou Gehrig ‘Luckiest Man’ Speech

By  //  July 4, 2014

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ABOVE VIDEO:  A tribute to one of the greatest – Lou Gehrig.

This July 4th is the 75th anniversary of what has gone down into history as perhaps the most memorable speech ever delivered by an athlete of any sport.



EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 4, 1939, the New York Yankees held “Lou Gehrig Day” at Yankee Stadium. Gehrig, the humble, indefatigable “Iron Horse” of the great Yankee teams of the1920s and 1930s had just turned 36 years old when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and, because of the progressive muscular weakness of the disease, had retired from playing two weeks before his “Day.”

Today is the 75th anniversary of what has gone down into history as perhaps the most memorable speech ever delivered by an athlete of any sport.



June 4 is the 75th anniversary of what has gone down into history as perhaps the most memorable speech ever delivered by an athlete of any sport.

Gehrig opened his farewell address to the over capacity 75,000 fans packing the Stadium that day with a statement that epitomized the humility and humanity of a man whose accomplishments on the field made him an authentic American hero, and tragic early death from the incurable neurodegenerative disease made him a legend:

Lou-Gehrig-260-1“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 this earth.” 



Gehrig went on to express his sincere gratitude for the “kindness and encouragement” he had received throughout his life and career from his family, team mates and fans, and closed by saying, “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”

PERSONAL RECOLLECTION OF GEHRIG’S LAST DAYS IN BASEBALL



VINCENT "JIMMY" PALERMO in April, 1939 at age 18, top, and IN 2006, above. Palermo died in 201 at the age of 90. (SpaceCoastDaily.com images)

VINCENT “JIMMY” PALERMO in April, 1939 at age 18, top, and in 2006, above. Palermo died in 2010 at the age of 90. (SpaceCoastDaily.com images)

My brother, Tom, and I were blessed with a father who was intimately involved in the everyday events of Major League baseball in St. Louis from 1926 to 1940 as first the mascot and then the batboy for the St. Louis Browns, and later as the clubhouse manager for the visiting teams at Sportsman’s Park.

In his 14 years behind the scenes of the Golden Age of Baseball he befriended many of the ballplayers from throughout the American League.
 Throughout our lives, our dad regaled us with his recollections of ballplayers and memorable baseball stories, some funny, some fantastic and others, like the one below about Lou Gehrig, heartbreaking but ever mindful of enduring greatness.

This story was originally posted to WhenItWasAGame.net, a website we developed with our dad in 2004 to celebrate our family’s baseball heritage and the Golden Age of Baseball.

Dad recalled in great clarity his last encounter with the man he described as “simply one of the nicest and most beloved ball players that I ever met, and a true gentleman,” when, at the age of 18, he helped the rapidly deteriorating Gehrig dress and tie his shoes during Lou’s last trip to St. Louis.

— Dr. Jim Palermo, Editor-in-Chief

LOU GEHRIG: AUTHENTIC AMERICAN HERO, BASEBALL LEGEND

A First-Hand Recollection By Vincent “Jimmy” Palermo

When “The Iron-Horse” walked into the visitors’ locker room at Sportsman’s Park on May 10th, I barely recognized him.

It was a memorable week in May of 1939 which marked my first meeting with the brash Boston Red Sox rookie, Ted Williams, during his first trip to St. Louis and, sadly, the last time that I ever saw Lou Gehrig, as the mighty New York Yankees arrived in St. Louis on May 10 following the Red Sox series.

CLASS ACT: Of all the players in baseball history, none possessed as much talent and humility as Lou Gehrig. His accomplishments on the field made him an authentic American hero - and his tragic early death made him a legend.

CLASS ACT: Of all the players in baseball history, none possessed as much talent and humility as Lou Gehrig. His accomplishments on the field made him an authentic American hero – and his tragic early death made him a legend.

I will alway remember my dear friend Lou Gehrig as a superstar, gentleman and genuine American hero. In striving to do his best no matter what the circumstances, many people even today, regard Lou as an icon and valuable role model.

Gehrig’s reputation for being one of the strongest and best conditioned players was surpassed only by his honesty, courage and modesty.

Although the Bronx Bombers finished the 1939 season 17 games ahead of the second place Red Sox, they were in a virtual dead heat with Boston in May.

Everyone knew that the great Lou Gehrig’s streak of  2,130 consecutive games had come to an end on the 2nd of May in Detroit when Lou took himself out of the line-up because he thought his puzzling physical weakness was a detriment to the team and he needed time to “get in better shape.”

IRONMAN Lou Gehrig’s streak of  2,130 consecutive games came to an end on the May 2, 1939 in Detroit, above, when Lou took himself out of the line-up because he thought his puzzling physical weakness was a detriment to the team and he needed time to “get in better shape.”

IRONMAN Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games came to an end on the May 2, 1939 in Detroit, above, when Lou took himself out of the line-up because he thought his puzzling physical weakness was a detriment to the team and he needed time to “get in better shape.”

He had only four hits and one RBI in the first eight games of the season and was admittedly very fatigued after every game.  During my time with the Browns starting in 1926 and through Lou’s last full season in 1938, I had never seen anyone else play first base for the Yankees.

Gehrig had been a cornerstone of all of the great Yankee teams throughout the 20s and 30s.  His reputation for being one of the physically strongest and best conditioned players in baseball was surpassed only by his honesty, courage and modesty.

He was simply one of the nicest and most beloved ball players that I ever met, and a true gentleman.

ABOVE VIDEO: Lou Gehrig gave his farewell speech on July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium, and is considered the most famous speech in baseball history. It came just after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

SHADOW OF HIS FORMER SELF

I had last seen Lou in September of 1938.  That year his average dipped to .295 with 170 hits, 29 home runs and 114 RBIs, a year that most Major League ballplayers would kill for.  But for Lou, it was a harbinger of things to come.

LOU GEHRIG was the first sports figure in American history to have his jersey number retired.

LOU GEHRIG was the first sports figure in American history to have his jersey number retired.

When “The Iron-Horse” walked into the visitors’ clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park on May 10th I barely recognized him.

DAHLGREN-80-1The aura of health and strength that his 6-foot-1-inch, 210-pound physique had previously always radiated was gone, replaced by a gaunt 190-pound shadow of his former self.  It seemed that Lou was moving in slow-motion, and his previous fluid and natural athleticism had been replaced by alternating deliberate and tentative action.

He dressed for both games of the series, but seemed to have a difficult time even pulling on his famous number 4.  Babe Dahlgren had replaced him in the line-up at first base.  “Buster” as Lou’s teammates fondly called him, didn’t play against the Browns, and never got back into the line-up again.

‘JIMMY, CAN YOU HELP ME WITH MY SHOES?’

Lou Gehrig, the "Iron Horse" of baseball, who was forced to the bench by amyotrophic lateral scherosis after playing 2,130 consecutive games, is touched by fans demonstration as he is acclaimed in a manner unrivaled in baseball history.  Upwards of 75,000 jammed Yankee Stadium to honor Lou.  He is shown here--handkerchief to his face, deeply moved by the ovation they gave him. July 4, 1939 Bronx, New York, New York, USA.

Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Horse” of baseball, who was forced to the bench by amyotrophic lateral scherosis after playing 2,130 consecutive games, is touched by fans demonstration as he is acclaimed in a manner unrivaled in baseball history. Upwards of 75,000 jammed Yankee Stadium to honor Lou. He is shown here–handkerchief to his face, deeply moved by the ovation they gave him. (July 4, 1939 Bronx, New York, New York, USA)

After the final game of the series in which the Yankees lived up to their moniker of  “The Bronx Bombers,” stomping the Browns 7-1 and 15-8, all the Yankee players came into the clubhouse to prepare for their trip back east. I had all their trunks packed with the help of Red Kern and Jim Cavanaugh.

READ ABOUT JIMMY PALERMO’S FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH BABE RUTH

As the players left, they paid their swindle sheet tabs, plus tip. (The Yankees were not only the best on the field, but were among the best tippers too!). Because it took time for Lou to dress himself due to his deteriorating physical condition, he and I were alone in the clubhouse.

JIMMY PALERMO, top, and Lou Gehrig, above, in 1939.

JIMMY PALERMO, top, and Lou Gehrig, above, in 1939.

gehrig-speech-245-1

GEHRIG’s WORDS of hope, grace, and humility on July 4, 1939, as he bid farewell to his fans, and his team, has often been referred to as the game’s Gettysburg Address.

After everyone was gone except Lou, he called me over to his locker which was the second one from the door. He was trying to put on his shoes, which I had shined many times for him in the past.

“Jimmy, can you help me with my shoes,” he asked as he tried in vain to put them on.

He just couldn’t bend over from his stool far enough to even slip them on.  My hands shook as I loosened the laces and then slipped both shoes on his feet, one at a time. He smiled at me and said, “thanks.”

My hands still shaking, I tied each of his shoelaces. He smiled at me again, drew a breath and rose from the stool. He paid his swindle sheet bill, said “thanks” and gave me a $10 tip. I don’t think he noticed the tears in my eyes as he very slowly walked out of the visitor’s clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park for what would be the last time.

Then, after Lou attempted to tie them himself and as I stood by, he looked up and said, “Jimmy, I think you’d better tie them for me too – because I just can’t.”

My hands still shaking, I tied each of his shoelaces. He smiled at me again, drew a breath and rose from the stool. He paid his swindle sheet bill, said “thanks” and gave me a $10 tip.  I don’t think he noticed the tears in my eyes as he very slowly walked out of the visitor’s clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park for what would be the last time.

Since he was late in leaving, and walking so slowly, I followed him out and told him I’d get a cab so he wouldn’t have to walk down to the cabstand on Grand Avenue.  Most of his teammates had already departed for Union Station to catch the train to Philadelphia.

Read more "Clubhouse Chronicles of the Golden Era" at WhenItWasAGame.net.

Read more “Clubhouse Chronicles of the Golden Era” at WhenItWasAGame.net.

I summoned Eddie Moran, the Black and White taxi dispatcher, and asked him to have a cab pick up Lou outside the press gate. Lou and I had a couple of minutes alone together before the cab pulled up.

Always a polite and thoughtful man, he asked how my mother and father were.  When the cab arrived I opened the door for him. He shook my hand and said, “See you next trip Jimmy, and thanks for the help.”  I never saw him in person again.

I returned to the empty clubhouse and cried. Baseball’s gentle giant – a great man and what a player!

Read more “Clubhouse Chronicles of the Golden Era” at WhenItWasAGame.net

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

By the time this team photo of the 1931 St. Louis Browns was taken, Jimmy Palermo (pictured above sitting on the ground between Hall of Famer Goose Goslin's feet), had been with the Browns for five seasons.

By the time this team photo of the 1931 St. Louis Browns was taken at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Jimmy Palermo (pictured above sitting on the ground between Hall of Famer Goose Goslin’s feet), had been with the Browns for five seasons.

Vincent “Jimmy” Palermo, who died in 2010 at age 90, talked about baseball from a first-hand experience and perspective that few could. 

RED KRESS of the Browns touches home plate after blasting a two-run homer into the left field bleachers of Sportsman's Park against the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 2, 1931. Batboy Jimmy Palermo looks on with the Browns' Lin Storti, left, and Indians' catcher Luke Sewell. This photo appeared the next day in the St. Louis Globe Democrat.

RED KRESS of the Browns touches home plate after blasting a two-run homer into the left field bleachers of Sportsman’s Park against the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 2, 1931. Batboy Jimmy Palermo looks on with the Browns’ Lin Storti, left, and Indians’ catcher Luke Sewell. This photo appeared the next day in the St. Louis Globe Democrat.

Beginning in 1927, when he was six years old, until just before World War II in 1941, Palermo was a part of the St. Louis Browns organization.

His first job with the Browns was as mascot of the team. At the age of nine, he was made the batboy and by 16 was managing the visitor’s clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park – home to both the Browns and Cardinals. Upon returning from the war, Palermo had to give up a promising professional umpiring career to assist his ailing father in the family businesses.

After living and working in St. Louis, he moved to Brevard County, Florida in 1988 with his wife Nadine to retire and enjoy the pride and pleasure of being near a loving family.


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