'An awful lot to live for'

Lou Gehrig and his mother, Christina Fack Gehrig

He almost didn't say anything.

The place was home plate at Yankee Stadium. The day was July 4, 1939. The weather was steamy.

And the circumstances were heart-breaking.

The New York Yankees were honoring Lou Gehrig between games of a doubleheader with the Washington Senators just two short months after the greatest first baseman in the history of baseball found out that it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that had robbed him of his physical abilities. The Stadium was packed with 61,000 fans as members of the '27 Yankees and his current teammates fanned out in the infield.

There were speeches from such dignitaries as New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy and Gehrig's old friend, Babe Ruth. There were gifts galore: a fishing rod and reel from his teammates, candlesticks from the rival New York Giants, a smoking stand from the writers, a silver platter from the stadium vendors. At one point, Gehrig had to put down a trophy because it was too heavy for him.

The stadium was draped in bunting -- but also in a feeling woven from appreciation and guilt, gratitude and sadness.

When the tributes were finished, the 36-year-old Gehrig nearly walked away. He had prepared remarks, but he wasn't prepared for his own emotions. Naturally shy to begin with, he stared at the ground and wiped away tears with a handkerchief he kept in his back pocket. As fans shouted, "We want Lou!" Sid Mercer, the sportswriter who served as master of ceremonies, told the crowd that Larrupin' Lou was too moved to speak.

But then McCarthy put his hand on Gehrig's back and whispered in his ear, as if he were giving his first baseman some last-minute instructions before taking the field. With that, Gehrig approached the microphones, ran his right hand through his hair, took a deep breath and began to speak without notes:

"For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Sportswriter Paul Gallico would write, "The clangy, iron echo of the Yankee stadium, picked up the sentence that poured from the loud speakers and hurled it forth into the world ... 'The luckiest man on the face of the earth ... luckiest man on the face of the earth ... luckiest man ... '"

He got the echo right.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of what has been called baseball's Gettysburg Address, it's important to note the differences between what Gehrig said that day and the speech given by Gary Cooper, the actor who played Gehrig in the 1942 movie, "The Pride of The Yankees." (You'll find a side-by-side look at both speeches here.)

Take the most famous line of the speech: "... the luckiest man on the face of the earth." It came at the very beginning of Gehrig's speech, but for dramatic effect, it's at the end of Cooper's. And, for whatever reason, the movie screenwriters changed, "I have been in ballparks for seventeen years," to, "I have been walking onto ballfields for sixteen years."

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