A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Luckiest Man On the Face of the Earth
Speech By: Lou Gehrig Title: The Luckiest Man On the Face of the Earth Date: July 4, 1939
Location: Yankee Stadium Occasion: Official retirement from baseball Length (words): 273 Video Posted:YouTube
When a famous athlete hangs up his spikes for the last time, it’s an occasion guaranteed to generate much raw emotion. That this moment takes place on the hallowed field where he enjoyed such unparalleled success, before a throng of more than 50,000 cheering fans, only adds to the drama. Keep in mind, most retirement speeches are made after the season, before a room full of sports reporters.
Now consider that the retirement is forced by a fatal illness.
As he has on so many other occasions, Lou Gehrig steps up to the plate to deliver for the fans. But he has to be led to the microphone by manager Joe McCarthy. That accentuates how emotionally difficult this moment is for him.
One of the key tasks for any public speaker is to establish an identity with the audience. This is not the most difficult task on this day. These are, after all, fans who have come to honor him. Yet he makes the most of it. He refuses to wallow in self-pity. Save for the concession that this is a “bad break,” he makes no mention of having contracted a fatal disease. He instead calls himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Then he goes on to involve the fans - “I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.” Even today, via an aged film clip, it seems as if he is addressing each of us personally.
He then goes on to mention those who have played such an important role in his life and career - teammates, owner, managers, parents, wife, even his Mother-in-law.
He does all this in only 273 words. He closes by again referring to his bad break, but asserting “I’ve got an awful lot to live for.” That closing line is interesting, because there is some indication he never truly realized, or accepted, that the disease which now bears his name would be fatal.
Gehrig was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in a special election, the summer he gave this speech. A player is not normally eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame, until five years after his retirement. Gehrig died a little less than two years later.
Interestingly, it is difficult to find a complete copy of the film footage of that day. The YouTube video posted here is from Ken Burns’ film Baseball. It is heavily edited, which does help enhance the dramatic appeal, but is not anywhere near complete. The text, as posted on the Lou Gehrig tribute site, has a few transcription errors, which I have tried to correct as much as possible. Other clips are available on the internet, but again, none are complete. It seems a shame. This is a good speech.
For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Today, I consider myself, the luckiest man on the face of the 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. Wouldn't you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine looking men, as are standing in uniform in the ball park today? 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 been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.