Sunday, July 04, 2010

Pop History Moment: Lou Gehrig Announces His Retirement

Throughout his career in baseball, Lou Gehrig was known as 'the Iron Horse' for both his speed and strength; over the course of 15 consecutive seasons with the New York Yankees he was a reliable hitter - and not just because of his reliability in the dugout. All told, Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games* during which he racked up an amazing 23 career grand slams, a record which still stands more than 70 years after his retirement. His lifetime batting average was .340, lifetime on-base percentage .447, and lifetime slugging percentage was .632; these are the kind of stats that aren't found too readily in the game today - and are even more incredible when considering that they were achieved without either performance enhancing drugs or the benefit of modern sports medicine and/or the rest of the rigamarole** currently available to professional athletes.

All of which made his retirement - on this day in 1939 - the more shocking; he was, after all, just 36 years old and otherwise at the top of his game, although his final season had been off, especially compared to the performance he turned in during 1937. Gehrig had been stricken by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) - a disease which would forever after bear his name; it would take just under two years for the disease to render the once-superlative athlete a withered corpse...

In all 61,808 fans - including his one-time rival Babe Ruth and New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia - gathered at Yankee Stadium on 'Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day', as witnessed by the footage posted above. Between games of an Independence Day double header with the Washington Senators Gehrig was hailed by all and sundry, presented with a trophy by team manager Joe McCarthy, became the first player in the history of major league baseball to have his number (4) retired, and made a speech which has continued to resonate ever since, in which he left no gut unwrenched by categorizing himself as 'the luckiest man on the face of the Earth'...

When it comes to history Hollywood often doesn't get it right; when they do, though, do they ever - and they really knocked one out of the park with The Pride of the Yankees. Starring Gary Cooper, an actor every bit as revered for his low-key nature and quiet masculinity as Gehrig was, director Sam Wood's 1942 biopic managed to be hyperbolic and accurate simultaneously, mainly because his subject was just that good a man. Teresa Wright co-starred as Gehrig's wife Eleanor, and Gehrig's team-mates Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Mark Koenig and Bill Dickey appeared in the film as themselves, so as to honour the memory of their fallen colleague.

*A record only broken by Cal Ripken, Jr., of the Baltimore Orioles in September 1995.
**Diet, exercise, massage, acupuncture, dating Madonna, and so on and so forth...
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