Lou Gehrig’s Luckiest Man Speech, delivered in front of 61,808 fans at Yankee Stadium, on July 4 1939; transcends the sports world and has to be considered one of the most iconic speeches in history. At the time, Gehrig had recently been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a disease that would become more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Gehrig’s illustrious baseball career and his life, were both shortened by the disease. He retired from baseball just a few weeks before “the speech”, and he died June 2, 1941.
On July 4, 1939, the New York Yankees held “Lou Gehrig Day” at Yankee Stadium. Gehrig had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) just two weeks earlier. With more than 62,000 fans in attendance, the Iron Horse took the microphone for what would become one of the most memorable moments in baseball history.
I was at Yankee Stadium on that melancholy afternoon, an 18-year-old sitting in the faraway right-field bleachers, and I was deeply touched by his words. But I thought only that Gehrig’s long career with the Yankees had come to an end. It never crossed my mind that his death was imminent.
On July 4, 2002 the late James Gandolfini reprised Gehrig’s speech.
It wasn’t a performance that was immediately acclaimed, shared or remembered Wednesday evening in the first moments after the world learned that James Gandolfini had died.
But in June 2002, Major League Baseball set aside a day to remember Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech and raise amyotrophic lateral sclerosis awareness, with someone chosen to recite it in each ballpark. Gandolfini was the pick in New York at the old Yankee Stadium. This wasn’t the sort of thing he liked to do, but it was for a cause that was important to him, so he stepped up to read words that are particularly poignant now.
Babe Ruth – You know about his 60 home runs in 1927, his 714 career homers, and the one in 1932 where he allegedly called the shot after he met the little kid in the hospital. But did you know that he was the goat of the 1926 World Series?
The Yankees were playing the Cardinals in game seven at Yankee Stadium. New York was batting in the bottom of the ninth inning, trailing 3-2. Facing Cardinals’ reliever Pete Alexander, the Yankees’ Earl Combs started the inning by grounding out to third. Mark Koenig followed him and also grounded out to third. Then Babe Ruth stepped to the plate. At that point he was probably the leading contender to be the series MVP. He had hit three home runs in game four, and another in the third inning of game seven.
Ruth was 6-20 for the series, as he stepped to the plate. He had also walked 10 times including three previous at-bats in game seven. His on base percentage was .516. After running a 3-2 count, Alexander walked Ruth one last time.
And then as H.I. Phillips wrote in the Boston the Globe the next day –
The end came a moment later when the Babe was caught stealing second. It was a case of the behemoth mistaking itself for a gazelle.
The cap that Don Larsen wore when he pitched the perfect game, is part of the collection at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. So is the catcher’s mitt that Yogi Berra used that same day. Unlike Larsen, when you go to Cooperstown, you can see Yogi’s face on a plaque on the wall. Because unlike Larsen, Yogi Berra is also a member (deservedly) of the Hall of Fame.
The total number of Major League games ever played is now well over 200,000, and Larsen’s perfect one is arguably the most memorable of them all. (We can argue about that at length in another blog post.) But if not for Larsen’s other worldly performance in game five of the 1956 World Series, his legacy would barely pierce the threshold of being a fair-to-middling journeyman pitcher.
Larsen was a 7-12 rookie in 1953 with the St. Louis Browns. He moved with the Browns to Baltimore in 1954 (where they became the Orioles) and staggered through a 3-21 season. In fairness to Larsen, the Orioles overall were a pathetic 54-100, but managed to avoid last place thanks to the Philadelphia A’s who at 51-103, were making sure they would not be missed in Philly before moving to Kansas City the following season.
During the off season between 1954 and 1955, Larsen was the “other pitcher” in a 9 for 3 trade that brought Bob Turley and Larsen to the Yankees.
It’s amazing how getting traded from a 54-100 club to one with a 103-51 record, tends to make a pitcher look good. Larsen posted a 9-2 record for the pennant winning Yankees in 1955.
He started game four of the World Series that year against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, and lasted through four innings. The Dodgers tagged him with five earned runs and the loss. Going into the game, the Brooklyn was down two games to one, but they went on to win it seven games, the only World Series that the Brooklyn Dodgers ever won.
In 1956, with the likes of Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Moose Skowron, Hank Bauer, and oh yeah – Mickey Mantle, providing support, Larsen went 11-5. He never won more games than that in a single season. Then again, Casey Stengel thought enough of him to start Larsen against the Dodgers, in game two of the 1956 World Series, a game that was also played at Ebbets Field.
The Yankees handed Larsen a 6-0 lead, but Stengel yanked him the second inning after he gave up a single and two walks. The Yankees went on to blow the lead and the game 13-8, and now trailed Brooklyn, two games to none.
The Subway Series went back to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and the Yankees bounced back winning the next two games and tied the series. Stengel decided to “go home with the girl that he brung to the dance.” Despite having only lasted a total of five and two thirds innings in his previous two World Series starts (with six walks against only two strikeouts) Larsen was the Yankees starter for game five. And of course, we know what happened.
He kicked off the 1957 season with a thud. In his first start, against the Red Sox, Larsen only managed to retire four batters, while giving up five hits and four earned runs. The Yankees wound up winning that game, so he got away with a no decision. For the entire 1957 season Larsen posted a 10-4 record. In the World Series against Milwaukee, he started and won game three, a 12-3 laugher. He was also on the mound for the start of the decisive seventh game, but this time it was the Braves Lew Burdette who made history, winning his third game of the series, while Larsen took the loss.
During their 1958 World Series rematch with the Braves. He pitched seven shutout innings and got the win in game three. Larsen started game seven and once again was opposed by Burdette. In the third inning, with the Yankees leading 2-1, he gave up a pair of singles, and Stengel decided to try his luck with his ace Bob Turley. Turley had already lost game two, won game five and saved game six, but he still had enough left to hold the Braves to one run the rest of the way. The Yankees won the game 6-2 and the series 4-3. Turley got the win and the series MVP, and Larsen had to “settle” for a second World Series ring.
In 1959 Larsen’s record was 6-7 and the Yankees finished third, their first non-pennant winning season since 1954. Before the start of the 1960 season he was traded to Kansas City. Larsen then went on to play for five more teams before calling it quits in 1967. He ended his career with a record of 81-91.
Don Larsen is to this day, probably, the most famous sub .500 pitcher in the history of baseball.
Phil Niekro, at the age of 46 years, six months and five days, became the oldest pitcher to win his 300th Major League game.
The win came at the expense of the Toronto Blue Jays, in Toronto, on October 6, 1985.
Niekro didn’t exactly limp to his milestone win. He blew the Jays away on a 4-hit complete game shutout, and led the Yankees to an 8-0 win. Famous for his knuckle-ball, Niekro stifled Toronto with a full repertoire of pitches.
Twenty-one years and 299 victories into his career, Phil Niekro decided to prove he was more than just a knuckleball pitcher.
And for 26 outs Sunday, on his way to an 8-0 victory over Toronto, Phil Niekro, the knuckleballer, simply became Phil Niekro the pitcher. He threw curveballs, slip pitches, fastballs and screwballs. And for 8 innings, the Blue Jays could not touch him.
Then, on the threshold of the milestone only 18 other pitchers have achieved, sentiment took over, and the need to prove that he could win without the knuckler lost out.
“As hard as it may seem, I threw three knuckleballs, and that’s when Jeff Burroughs (the final batter) came up to the plate,” Phil Niekro said. “I figured if there’s anyway I’m going to win my 300th game by striking the guy out, I was going to do it with the pitch that won the first game for me.” Read more LA Times
He wasn’t finished yet.
Niekro’s 300th win, which came on the last day of the 1985, was far from his swan song. He won 18 more games before retiring in 1987 with a record of 318 wins against 274 losses.
One of the most bizarre, and dramatic plays in the history of baseball.
Let’s set the stage.
It’s another October and what do you know? The Yankees are playing in the World Series. It’s only the 12th time in the last 21 years.
But who are these guys they’re playing, the Brooklyn Dodgers? Well they haven’t won a pennant since 1920. But don’t sell these Dodgers short. These are not the same bums from the 1920s and 1930s, who couldn’t draw flies to Ebbets Field. These Dodgers had a record of 100-54. (Okay, the Yankees were 101-53. So what’s a game?) They had three .300 hitters (Dixie Walker .311, Joe Medwick .319 and league leader Peter Reiser .341. They also featured the NationalLeague MVP winner, Dolph Camilli who hit 34 home runs along with 120 RBIs. The Dodgers even had a pair of 20-game winners on their pitching staff (Kirby Higbe 20-9, and Whit Wyatt 22-10).
But the Yankees are the Yankees. They take the opener 3-2. The Dodgers come back though, and win game two, also by a score of 3-2. The series moves from the Bronx to Brooklyn and Yanks win another squeaker, 2-1. And now it’s game four at Ebbets Field. Top of the ninth, Yankees batting. They trail the Dodgers 4-3 and are down to their final out.
Hugh Casey is on the mound for the Dodgers.
He strikes out Tommy Henrich. Game over, series tied! Uh oh, not so fast.
The “strikeout” pitch that fools Henrich is so bad, it’s in the dirt. But Dodgers’ catcher Mickey Owen, can’t find it either. The ball dribbles toward the back stop, Henrich runs to first. It’s not even close, he is safe.
Now Carey gets to face Joe Dimaggio.
Dimaggio singles to left, Henrich moves to second. Then Charlie Keller doubles and both Henrich and Dimaggio score. By this time Casey has lost his composure (Can you imagine that?) and walks Bill Dickey and gives up a double to Joe Gordon. Keller and Dickey both score.
When the inning finally ends the Yankees lead 7-4. And the Dodgers go down one-two-three in their half of the ninth inning.
The Yankees lead the series 3-1. The next day they finish off the Dodgers, beating them 3-1. And in case you’re wondering –
A batter is out when-
6.05 (b) A third strike is legally caught by the catcher;
Rule 6.05(b) Comment: “Legally caught” means in the catcher’s glove before the ball touches the ground. It is not legal if the ball lodges in his clothing or paraphernalia; or if it touches the umpire and is caught by the catcher on the rebound. If a foul tip first strikes the catcher’s glove and then goes on through and is caught by both hands against his body or protector, before the ball touches the ground, it is a strike, and if third strike, batter is out. If smothered against his body or protector, it is a catch provided the ball struck the catcher’s glove or hand first.