Growing up, I had always heard about Lou Gehrig’s famous speech as a dying man: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this Earth….” But I had never read the extensive context of that story until a few years ago when I bought a copy of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig at a book sale.

Lou Gehrig began his baseball career with the New York Yankees in 1925. He never missed a game for fourteen years while becoming one of the all-time greats. He was so strong and steady that sportswriters nicknamed him the “Iron Horse.”

Gehrig started the 1939 season playing horribly. Everyone noticed this in spring training. Gehrig thought he would play himself out of it. Instead, his game diminished.

Gehrig made a routine play at first to make the third out of an inning a few games into the season. Several players congratulated him when he arrived at the bench.

That night, Gehrig grew more and more disturbed. Had it come to this? Had his quality of play fallen so low that his teammates felt compelled to compliment him profusely for a routine play?

The following day, Gehrig approached his manager, Joe McCartney, and asked to remain on the bench “for the good of the team.”

That afternoon, Lou Gehrig missed his first ballgame since 1925. The story was national news.

Of course, as you know, Gehrig traveled a few days later to the Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed with the disease that would later bear his name. The New York Yankees organized a special day honoring him. The ceremony took place between games of a doubleheader with the Washington Senators.

The Yankees brought in old teammates such as Babe Ruth. Gifts were showered upon Gehrig, including one from the archrival, New York Giants.

Finally, all the speeches were made, and the multitude that filled Yankee Stadium began calling upon Gehrig to speak. But he was too overcome. Overwhelmed by kindness, Gehrig stood to the side, weeping.

It is little known that after it became apparent that Gehrig could not respond, workers began to dismantle the microphones at home plate. Then Joe McCarthy walked over to Gehrig. Whispering in his ear, the manager gently coaxed him to say a few words.

That was when Gehrig strode to the microphones and, head down, uttered these words, “Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” What I did not realize was that he went on to offer a brief, gracious speech, thanking various groups and individuals, before saying his final words, “So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

Hollywood has depicted Lou’s story in a wonderful movie, and portions of Gehrig’s speech are played at stadiums until this day. Why does Gehrig’s story endure? There are many reasons, including Gehrig’s humility and the courage with which he faced his tragedy. But another reason is the gratitude Gehrig demonstrated in his speech. He was grateful to have played a game he loved for a living. He was thankful for a marvelous career. He appreciated his fellow athletes and fans who supported him. ALS destroyed Lou less than two years after that speech. He died at 37. 

As we head into Thanksgiving this week, I pray that we don’t face the tragedy of Lou Gehrig. But whatever we face, my prayer is that we live our lives with attitudes of gratitude. 

May you enjoy Thanksgiving.