Today marks the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's "Luckiest Man" farewell speech, a spontaneous, from-the-heart delivery that was presented in front of more than 61,000 fans at Yankee Stadium.
Jonathan Eig, who wrote the definitive biography by the same name on the New York Yankees great, painted the scene this way:
It was July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium, a hot and sticky afternoon. For the first time in his life, Gehrig was afraid to be on a ballfield. He was 36 years old and dying. His Yankee teammates and their opponents that day, the Washington Senators, were lined up on the infield grass, waiting for the ceremony to begin. His wife and parents watched from box seats along the third-base line.
It's safe to assume that Gordon Black of Jamestown was likely in the same general vicinity as Eleanor Gehrig, and Mr. and Mrs. Heinrich Gehrig that afternoon, because he was holding blue ticket stub No. 20273. That placed Black, then 8 years old and attending his first major league game with his father, about 20 rows from the field in the lower bowl, almost even with the third-base bag.
Ironically, Black and his parents were originally only planning to visit friends in Brooklyn, in combination with a side trip to the World's Fair that was being held in Queens. A trip to the Bronx wasn't on the itinerary.
"We had not talked about seeing a baseball game, but somehow we ended up in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939,'' said Black, now 83, earlier this week from his Aldren Avenue home which he shares with his wife Sally. " My dad was trying to be a good father and take me to a game.''
Maybe that explains why Black's memory of that day is as clear as can be. After all, who doesn't remember their first major league experience? Among other things, he recalled seeing Dorothy Arnold, Joe DiMaggio's first wife who was sitting 10-15 rows away, stand and wave to the crowd after being introduced by the public-address announcer. He also recalled the starting lineups of both the Yankees and the Senators, and the outcomes of both games of the doubleheader, all without the benefit of a note.
But all that paled in comparison to the between-games tribute to Gehrig, who was afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and who would die less than two years later. After some prodding from his manager, Joe McCarthy, Gehrig agreed to speak to the crowd.
Writes Eig in his Gehrig biography: "At last Gehrig bent over slightly in the direction of the microphones, took a deep breath, and began to speak."
The following is the text of his speech, courtesy of the Sports Illustrated website:
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 seventeen 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. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift - that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies - that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter - that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body - it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed - that's the finest I know.
"So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."
"I can still visualize myself there,'' Black said. " I can remember the location down near home plate and all his teammates were in the background. At the time, the speech didn't mean anything to me until later on when I started hearing about what he had done. I'm sorry that I didn't keep the scorecard, but I do have the ticket stub.''
Ah, the ticket stub.
Seventy-five years after witnessing one of baseball's greatest players deliver arguably the most poignant speech in sports history, Black still has the ticket stub. Light blue in color, the ticket is in pretty good condition, although one side shows some damage after spending years in one of Black's scrapbooks. It's face value? $1.10.
Ironically, the ticket stub from that historic day has been in the news this week. According to published reports, a ticket stub from July 4, 1939, in the mezzanine box at Yankee Stadium and signed by Gehrig is expected to bring more than $100,000 at the Aug. 1 sale in Cleveland. The report also says that it is one of only two known tickets to have survived from that day long ago.
It appears, however, that Black possesses another one, but he says there is no price tag on this piece of baseball history.
"I wouldn't sell it," he said. "That's part of the sentimental value to it.''