Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Iron Horse...His Farewell Speech, 75 Years Ago

If you haven't read it already, today marks the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's "luckiest man on the face of the earth," speech.  It was truly an iconic moment in the history of sport and one that thankfully was recorded, registering every stirring word of that amazing speech.

As a kid, I think I saw the movie "Pride of the Yankees" at least ten times.  I remember it being the KTLA movie of the week a few times, which meant they replayed it about five times a week.  So I watched it every night.  It was a wonderful movie, but MGM stretched the truth in some cases and changed the order of Lou's speech for dramatic effect, having Gary Cooper finish with the famous words that we all know echoed through Yankee Stadium.

Today, while watching Dick Enberg announce the Padres-Giants game, he reported that every 90 seconds, someone succumbs to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), known most commonly as Lou Gehrig's disease.  Honestly I had no idea how prevalent ALS is.  That's a lot of people suffering from the disease.  Sadly, there hasn't been much headway in curing the disease.  What has progressed is determinations of the causes of it and ways to extend the life of sufferers of the illness.

A few years ago, HBO's Real Sports showed a compelling segment on ALS and the frequency of it's diagnosis with athletes that have suffered numerous head injuries.  Most notably there were a number of NFL players, that were dying from ALS, and evidence from brain scans led researchers to believe that their diagnosis was directly linked to the numerous concussions they suffered during their playing careers.

It was also discovered that Gehrig, in the course of setting his consecutive games streak, played through numerous concussions, probably directly attributing to the disease that took his life.    HBO Sports in their research determined that Gehrig suffered at least six head injuries, one of which was probably a fractured skull, but he played through it all.

ALS is the cruelest of diseases, as virtually every part of the body deteriorates except for the mind.  So in the final stages, the sufferer does so in complete silence and has no control over it.  With most dying from respiratory failure, unable to speak and their mind functioning completely.  The saddest part of ALS is that it often debilitates the strongest of athletes into shells of their former selves.

So the words of the great Lou Gehrig, ring of amazing courage, especially considering what he was going through at the time.  He was losing the ability to control his muscles.  His speech was slowing. The feeling in his hands and feet was disappearing.  Eventually he was confined to bed and a respirator.  Did he fully know what he was about to have to endure prior to his death?  That fact is known to very few, but recent stories addressing his final years seems to tell us that his deterioration wasn't as rapid as some thought.  Gehrig continued functioning in society for a few years after his 1939 retirement from baseball.

He faced his fate with undue courage and honor, continuing to live a post baseball life.  He accepted a job offered by New York Mayor LaGuardia as commissioner of the city parole board.  He got up and drove to work each day.  He made $5,700 a year in salary.  He even sent boxing great, Rocky Graziano, to reform school as he was a juvenile committing crimes in Gehrig's jurisdiction.

The closing words of Gehrig's 1939 speech were not that he was the "luckiest man on the face of the earth."  He actually started his speech saying that.  The conclusion of he stadium speech hinted that he planned on being with us for a while as he said "I may have been given a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."  Sadly the disease cut his life out from under him two years later.

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