Saturday, July 04, 2009

Lou Gehrig in 140 Characters? Impossible to Imagine

By David Whitley

Lou Gehrig did not Twitter.

Never mind that such social networking wasn't around 70 years ago. Typing minutiae and thinking it's important simply wasn't Gehrig's style.

He was unassuming, lived with his parents until he was 30 and didn't crave his own reality TV show. Let's hope players are paying attention Saturday when baseball does something unusual.

A speech will be read during the 7th-inning stretch at every ballpark. Nobody knows if the words are accurate, only that they are unforgettable.

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

You've probably heard them a million times. But on the 70th anniversary of Gehrig's farewell, we need to be reminded how unique the speech and the speaker were.

"The person and the words and the moment have to come together," Stephen Lucas said.

Lucas is a professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin. People like him study speeches as scholars, not sports fans. In 1999, Lucas and a colleague surveyed 137 experts and came up with the top 100 American speeches of 20th Century.

Number one was Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream, followed by John Kennedy's inaugural address. The list includes orators like William Jennings Bryan, Ronald Reagan and Jesse Jackson. The most unlikely name to make it came in at No. 73.

Henry Louis (Lou) Gehrig. Farewell to Baseball Address.

"It's an iconic moment in American life, not just sports," Lucas said. "It transcended sports."

That's not easy to do. Sports have produced memorable lines like "Win one for the Gipper," and "No Mas," but no other sports-related speeches sniffed the top 100. Given the state of sports oratory, it's doubtful the 21st Century will be any better.

"If u want to chat with me be sure to register once you to the ShaqCast We gonna have some fun baby!!!"

So went a recent Twitter communiqué from Shaquille O'Neal. Not to pick on Shaq; he is merely the product of our hyperactive communication age. It is fueled by electronic gadgets and excess ego, neither of which Gehrig had much use for.

For my money, his speech should be in the century's top 10, or at least ahead of Margaret Higgins Sanger's The Morality of Birth Control at No. 46. I mean, how many games in a row did she play?

The Iron Horse did not have a ghostwriter. His speech was not bounced off focus groups beforehand. Gehrig simply jotted down some thoughts the night before, then reluctantly tried to remember them in front of 61,808 fans at Yankee Stadium.

The setting is important for any great speech. Think King at the Lincoln Memorial or Kennedy at the Berlin Wall. Yankee Stadium was already a sports shrine in 1939 and baseball players were Gods.

It helps to speak at a decisive moment. Think Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor address to the nation or Reagan after the Challenger disaster. When Gehrig spoke, few knew how ill he was, but most sensed they might never see him again.

The most emotional place and time will not matter, however, if the speech lacks one thing.

"Content," Lucas said. "The most important thing in any great speech is content."

That's another thing that makes Gehrig's speech unique. The world will never know for sure what was said that day.

Newsreel footage only caught the beginning and the end. Newspaper accounts differed since reporters jotted slightly different versions.

The confusion was compounded in 1942, when Gary Cooper played Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees. The immortal "luckiest man" sentence was moved from the beginning of the speech to the end.

Lucas played detective and put the original snippets together. There's still some question whether Gehrig thanked Yankees general manager Ed Barrow. And it's forever odd that he would thank his mother-in-law for often backing him up when he argued with his wife.

Truth be told, the middle of the speech is just a short recitation of thank-yous. It's the start and finish that people remember.

"There's a nobility to it we don't find much any more," Lucas said.

To which some modern-day jock would react, "What u talking bout???"

Gehrig never had much to say, especially about himself. He just showed up at work every day for 14 years and went about his business.

"I'm not a headline guy," he once said. "I'm just a guy who's in there every day. The fellow that follows Babe [Ruth] in the batting order. When Babe's turn at-bat is over the fans are still talking about him when I come up. If I stood on my head at the plate, nobody would pay attention."

If only Shaq had felt so magnanimous toward Kobe Bryant, or vice versa, the Lakers might have won three or four more titles. Gehrig and Ruth had their differences, but they never let them interfere with their jobs.

Nothing interfered with Gehrig after he replaced Wally Pipp at first base in 1925. He won two MVPs, a triple crown and six World Series. But toward the end of the 1938 season his bat lost its pop.

Gehrig showed up the next spring and his skills seem to have eroded 10 years. He had only four hits in his first 28 at-bats. After muffing some grounders in batting practice before a game in Detroit, he threw down his glove in disgust.

The next day he informed manager Joe McCarthy that he should not play. For the first time in 2,130 games, "Gehrig" did not appear on the lineup card. He was not about to drag down the team while hoping to get a few hits.

He stayed with the team but felt more worn out every day. After two months he went to the Mayo Clinic. On June 19, Gehrig's 36th birthday, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ...

At the time, the disease didn't bear his name.

Not many people knew what it was. News reports said only that he was retiring due to some sort of paralysis. The Yankees decided to have a Lou Gehrig Day.

July 4th seemed ideal. Between games of a doubleheader against Washington, members of the 1927 Yankees circled the field behind a band. Everyone then gathered at home plate, where a bank of microphones had been set up.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia spoke. Ruth threw his arms around Gehrig. Teammates presented Gehrig a silver bat trophy. The hated Giants even sent a plaque. Gehrig was so overwhelmed that emcee Sid Mercer decided not to follow the event's script.

"I shall not ask Lou Gehrig to make a speech," he said. "I do not believe that I should."

Fans yelled "Lou, Lou, Lou," but their hero couldn't respond. McCarthy whispered something to Gehrig, who reluctantly ambled toward the microphones.

If you didn't know better, you'd have thought Gehrig was playing the crowd. Gary Cooper himself could not have squeezed more drama out of the moment.

Gehrig looked at the ground. He pinched his brow. He stuck his hands in his back pockets, opened his mouth and hoped the words would come.

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got."

Gehrig was so nervous that "break" sounded like "brag." Nobody seemed to notice.

"Yet today I consider myself ... "

You know the rest.

A dying man talked about all he had to live for. The 277 words were such a blur that Gehrig later asked reporters if he'd rambled too long.

"I'd have rather struck out in the ninth with the score tied, two down and the bases loaded, than walk out there before all those grand people," he said. "It's the only time I've been frightened on a ball field."

Talk about coming through in the clutch. From FDR to Kennedy to King to Reagan, that's what makes a great speech. The difference is none of them ever gave a speech knowing it would be their last.

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.

He probably never suspected his words would live forever.

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