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'The Luckiest Man' at 75

6:00 AM, Jul 4, 2014 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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For the last couple years, the boss has recommended a few important speeches on and about July 4 from Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Lou Gehrig. All are worth revisiting, but earning special mention this year is Gehrig's July 4 farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. On this day 75 years ago, the first basemen retired from the game he loved in front of the fans who loved him.

His amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease so associated with the man that it now popularly bears his name, had begun to destroy his body. But in his address, which he made in between double-header games, Gehrig humbly spoke of himself as the "luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Richard Sandomir of the New York Times reflects on the words of Gehrig's speech and how we came to remember them through Gary Cooper's honest portrayal of the Iron Horse in the 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees. Here's an excerpt:

Far from the United States, more than a year after the release of Pride, Cooper would begin to grasp the importance of the "luckiest man" speech. In October 1943, Cooper traveled to the South Pacific with actresses Una Merkel and Phyllis Brooks to entertain American troops. "I was the comic relief," he told the Saturday Evening Post, acting out Jack Benny scripts the soldiers had not yet heard. "Me, as Jack Benny!" he exclaimed.

One night in Port Moresby, New Guinea, he was dozing in his tent when a cloudburst threatened to cancel the night's show. But 15,000 troops were waiting on a muddy slope. So Cooper, Merkel and Brooks headed to the stage covered with canvas tarps, along with accordionist Andy Arcari. When they finished their act, a soldier shouted, "Hey, Coop, how about Lou Gehrig's farewell speech to the Yankees?" The soldiers had recently seen Pride, so it was not a surprise that more troops demanded he play the Iron Horse again.

"The boys began to shout in union for the farewell speech," he said. He asked that they let him step inside a tent, to give him time to remember the speech as well as he could. "I don't want to leave out anything," he said he told them. As he jotted down the words, a tent pole slipped, and rain poured down his neck. Finally, with the speech done, he came out and recited it. "It was a silent bunch that listened to it," he wrote.

After that, he said, no matter where the troupe went on their 24,000-mile tour -- to Doddura, Milen Bay, Goodenough Island, Hollandia, Lae and Darwin -- new requests came for the speech. "They were the words of a brave American who had only a short time to live," Cooper later recalled, "and they meant to something to those kids in the Pacific."

Read the whole piece here, and after that, watch Major League Baseball's tribute, which features Gehrig's most famous lines spoken by each of the league's starting first basemen:

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