Thursday, July 4, 2013

Daily Sports Affirmation: 7/4/13

Independence Day has so synonymous with all the symbols of American Life. Fireworks to represent how our country was born. Swimming and Summertime representing our luxury and freedom. Grilling hot dogs and, of course, baseball. So it's fitting that July 4th is the anniversary of the most famous speech in baseball history.

Young Henry was born in East Harlem on June 19th, 1903 to his German immigrant parents Heinrich and Christina. The second of four children, he weighed nearly 14lbs at birth and it was perhaps this heartiness that helped him survive his humble beginnings. His two sisters would die of whooping cough and the measles at early ages and his only brother died in infancy. But Henry, or Buster as he was called, survived and grew up helping his mother with her job as a maid. Meanwhile, his father was a sheet metal worker, but was frequently unemployed due to his battles with drink.

Soon, as most young men in America did, Buster took up baseball and quickly showed great aptitude. He first garnered major attention at age 17 in a High school exhibition game at Wrigley Field when he hit a grand slam that cleared the stands and landed onto Waveland Ave, a feat unheard of for a teenager. After graduating from Commerce High in NY, he attended Columbia University, but not for baseball but on a football scholarship and pursuing a degree in engineering. However, just  before he started his college career, the manager of the New York Giants convinced Buster to sign up for a summer pro baseball team, but use a false name as to not endanger his college eligibility. And thus avoiding his last name, "Henry Lewis" played for the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League. Unfortunately, Henry's talents quickly drew notice and his ruse was discovered. So he returned to Columbia and after sitting out his freshman year for his dalliance in Hartford, Buster became a talented fullback for the Columbia Lions football team his second year. But his talents on the baseball diamond did not go unnoticed, for he went on the following spring to both pitch and play first base for Columbia. In fact, on April 18th, 1923 the same day Yankee Stadium opened and was christened by a Babe Ruth home run, Young Buster, or as he is more commonly known Henry Louis :Lou" Gehrig, struck out 17 batters for Columbia.

In the stands that day was Yankee scout Paul Krichell, who had been following Gehrig for some time. And despite his dominance on the mound that day, Krichell was more interested in Gehrig as a left-handed power hitting first baseman. Within 2 months, Gehrig left Columbia and signed with the New York Yankees.

Gehirig joined the Yankees almost immediately, making his debut in pinstripes June 15th, 1923 as a pinch hitter. Gehrig went back and forth between the big club to the minors for the next 2 season. His big break finally came in 1925, when on June 2nd current Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp showed up to the park with a terrible headache. Yankee manager Miller Higgins told Pipp "take the day off, we'll try that kid Gehrig at first today and get you back in there tomorrow." Well, it didn't exactly happen like that for Wally. For the next day, Gehrig again played first. And then the day after that. In fact, Gehrig went on to play the next 2,130 consecutive games, earning him yet another nickname, "Iron Horse."

Gehrig's insertion into the lineup would cement what was in commonly known as the most potent offensive team in baseball history that was dubbed "Murders Row." In 1927, Gehrig hit .373 with 218 hits, 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs and 175 RBIs. For you baseball nerds, that's a slugging % of .765! Gehrig and his familiar number 4 for the Yankees went on to have one of the greatest careers in baseball history.

But in 1938, Gehrig began to notice some physical changes in himself. Though his numbers were still solid, the once vaunted power that got Lou to the Yankees was clearly slipping. By spring training in 1939, it had gotten even worse. He hit no home runs that spring and even began to struggle just running the base paths, at one point even collapsing in the middle of a game rounding first. But Gehrig still made the roster and still ran out to first base for the Yankees on opening day, more out of loyalty for his time in pinstripes than production by then. But after a tough April of only hitting .143, the struggles grew even too much for Gehrig. So Gehrig walked into manger's Joe McCarthy's office after 2,130 consecutive starts and said "I'm benching myself, Joe."

Lou's wife, Eleanor, convinced him to go see a doctor and she placed a call to Charles William Mayo, who was a big fan of Gehrig's career. On June 13th, 1939 after a battery of tests, the 35 year old Gehrig was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS and given less that 3 years to live. Eight days later, Gehrig announced his retirement for the Yankees. The Yankees, in turn, announced that July 4th, 1939 would be "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day" and that between games of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators Lou would have his #4 retired, becoming the first player in baseball to be given that honor. Many dignitaries showed and Lou was showered with wonderful gifts. And despite being given a premature death sentence, the great Lou Gehrig stepped to the microphone and said this:

Less than 2 years later at age 37, Lou Gehrig died. He passed on June 2, 1941 exactly 16 years to the day after he had replaced Wally Pipp at first for the Yankees.

So on July 4th, as you jump in the pool, watch the fireworks above, grill some hot dogs or watch a little baseball, remember how you are so very lucky as well. To live in a country with such freedom that you can rise from humble beginnings and realize your potential. And be thankful for every moment you have, just as Lou did.

Happy 4th of July to everyone! Be safe and be well!

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