It became the stuff of sports legend — something you'd call far-fetched if Hollywood had come up with the story first: A humble and handsome baseball hero saying goodbye to the game he loved because he was dying from a fatal disease.
But it was 80 years ago, on July 4, 1939, when all of that happened as Lou Gehrig made his iconic "luckiest man" speech.
Gehrig, a teammate of fellow New York Yankees greats Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, is widely considered to be one of the greatest players in baseball history. According to a website made in his honor, Gehrig earned the nickname "Iron Horse" because of his endurance and strength. His record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, despite fractured bones and back spasms, lasted until 1995 when it was broken by Cal Ripken Jr.
Gehrig's streak ended on May 2, 1939, when, as Yankee captain, he took his name off that day's roster because he knew he was physically deteriorating. He was weak and shuffled his feet as he walked. He was later diagnosed with a very rare form of the degenerative disease: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is often called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
He knew he had to retire from baseball. But when a New York sportswriter suggested the Yankees honor Gehrig on July 4, 1939, the humble Gehrig was reluctant. He listened as teammates, including Ruth, took to the microphone. Yet, he declined to speak. But when the crowd of 62,000 fans in the stands began chanting, "We want Lou! We want Lou!" he knew he had to say a few words.
His seemingly impromptu speech was both poignant and inspiring and is frequently cited as one of the greatest speeches in sports history. This is just a part of the speech:
"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. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and 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. So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."
For the full text of the speech, visit SportsIllustrated.com.
Less than two years later, at the age of 37, Gehrig succumbed to ALS.
Since his death, greater attention and resources have been paid to ALS. In 2015, the ALS Association raised $115 million dollars during its Ice Bucket Challenge that went viral on social media.
For more information about Lou Gehrig's disease and ways you can help, visit ALSA.org.