“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” – Lou Gehrig
June 19, 1903, marks the birthday of Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Horse” New York Yankee from 1923-1939. Voted the greatest first baseman of all time by the Baseball Writers Association in 1969, Gehrig was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1989 and was the leading vote-getter for Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team. Gehrig played alongside some of the greatest baseball icons including Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, and Babe Ruth. His was the first number ever retired in Major League Baseball.
Lou Gehrig uttered his famous quote on July 4th, 1939, “Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium.” It was delivered, not at the height of his amazing baseball career, but at his last public appearance before 40,000 adoring fans, teammates, and family members. Just weeks before, Gehrig had spent three days at Mayo Clinic to investigate troubling changes in his strength, balance and coordination. He was given the diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal, progressive, neuromuscular condition which would later carry his name, Lou Gehrig Disease. The “luckiest man on the face of the earth” was tragically saying good-bye to the sport he loved.
Such circumstances could understandably lead a person toward a state of reclusivity and depression. Lou Gehrig took a different path. He was offered and accepted the position of Parole Board Commissioner by New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Gehrig’s own modest beginnings as the son of German immigrant parents in New York likely offered him a sense of empathy toward the many troubled young men he would encounter over the next 18 months of his life. Gehrig would have a profound effect on one in particular. Nineteen year old Rocco Barbella, repeatedly arrested for increasingly violent crimes, was influenced and guided by Gehrig. Barbella changed the trajectory of his life and his name, becoming Rocky Graziano, the future middle weight boxing champion of the world and inductee in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Lou Gehrig died in his sleep June 2, 1941 at the age of 37.
Most of us will never experience the dramatic peaks and valleys of a tragically shortened life like Gehrig’s. Yet, we are called upon to look deeply at this “luckiest man” and appreciate his model of compassion, acceptance, appreciation and hope.
Today, we face far different life challenges in the year 2020, a century after Lou Gehrig lived and loved and lost. Our current losses of health, of wealth, and of ease in our cities and communities seem to be compounding. Like Gehrig, all we have are our actions. They are the ground on which we stand. All we have is the way in which we choose to respond to conditions as they manifest around us. If we incline toward a sense of equanimity, spaciousness and understanding we may change the climate around us from one of fear into one of compassion for ourselves and others.
What could I look upon today that might nudge me toward saying:
“I am the luckiest person on the face of the earth?”
– Betsy Schussler | Image courtesy of Colin S. Foral