80 years ago on July 4, 1939, the New York Yankees celebrated Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium. A few weeks earlier, the Yankees announced Gehrig’s retirement from baseball just two days after the player’s ALS diagnosis was made public.
Henry Louis Gehrig dropped out of Columbia University in 1923 when he was recruited by the New York Yankees. Gehrig’s breakout season was in 1923 when he batted .313 with 16 home runs and 112 RBIs. Over the next several years, Gehrig went on to become one of the most prominent players in baseball. Alongside Babe Ruth, Gehrig and the rest of the Yankees won the World Series in 1927, 1928, and 1932. In 1933, Gehrig became the first athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties cereal.
Things took a turn in 1938 when Gehrig’s playing abilities started to falter. He didn’t realize that this was a result of a serious illness until the following year when he started getting clumsy and weak. On May 2, 1939, Gehrig told his manager he wanted to sit out the game for the sake of the team, ending his record-setting streak of 2,130 games in a row. Gehrig tried to reenter the game on June 12 but took himself out again after committing several errors on the field. It was then that Gehrig went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where he was officially diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
In between the Independence Day doubleheader against the Washington Senators in 1939, Lou Gehrig took to the diamond to deliver his iconic “Luckiest Man” speech in front of 61,000 fans. “For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Gehrig began before going on to express his appreciation for the Yankees organization, his family, and his fans. He concluded his final public appearance with these poignant words: “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”