Lou Gehrig, the “Luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

In 1939, the Fourth of July coincided with Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium.  A day usually reserved for parades and fireworks was transformed into one of the most solemn, heart-wrenching, and inspiring moments in the history of sports. It was here, before 62,000 fans, that Gehrig proclaimed he was the “Luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

After a few games into the 1939 season, Gehrig’s performance had noticeably declined. On May 2, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup for the first time in 2,130 consecutive games. Unbeknownst to him, he would never play again.  

Soon after Gehrig’s streak came to an end, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease he is synonymous with to this day.  After hearing the news, the Yankee clubhouse made arrangements to honor their longtime all-star.

On July 4, 1939, the Yankees played a double header against the Washington Senators. Between the two games, players, coaches, and other notable figures came out to shower Gehrig with gifts and kind words.  The Yankees also began a new baseball tradition as they retired Gehrig’s number 4 uniform.

Gehrig almost did not speak.  As the ceremony came to an end and the microphones were being hauled away, the “Iron Horse” decided to say a few words. As Gehrig fought away tears, he made one of the most iconic speeches of all time. 

It seems appropriate that Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day fell on Independence Day. In his famous Declaration, Thomas Jefferson ascribed that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Despite his grim diagnosis and tragic decline, Gehrig embraced Jefferson’s unalienable rights. As he famously said, “I may have gotten a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

Watch the newsreel on the National Archives YouTube Channel, and read more about Gehrig’s iconic speech via Media Matters » “An Awful Lot to Live For”: Lou Gehrig’s Final Season in the News

Universal News Volume 11, Release 786, Story #5, July 5, 1939