One of the best things about sports are the stories and, as time moves past us, sometimes the stories behind the stories get left out or pushed aside. As a sport enthusiast who has written several books, aired on the radio for twenty years and interviewed many persons from the world of sports, I am amazed at how often we do not know the whole truth. The history of this game is important to me. During the summer of 2000, my radio partner, Dennis Quinn, and I interviewed a fellow who was working as an executive for the Texas Rangers. At that time he had spent 61 years in professional baseball as a player, manager, and front office executive. In that interview, he described to us a firsthand account of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech given on July 4, 1939. You see, he was there as the lead-off hitter for the Washington Senators. I’ve got to tell you, firsthand accounts of historic events give me “Goosebumps.”
It was already a hot and muggy day when they opened the Yankee Stadium turnstiles at 10 a.m. that morning. The New York Yankees were hosting the Washington Senators in a doubleheader on Independence Day. A big crowd was expected as several busloads of fans from Manville, New Jersey, poured into their seats to see for the first time their hometown hero, a rookie centerfielder named Johnny “Legs” Welaj. Legs had been born on May 27, 1914, in Moss Creek, Pennsylvania. His family soon moved to Bound Brook, New Jersey, where he graduated high school in 1934, and began playing semi-pro baseball. Johnny had starred in baseball, basketball and football, and become the inaugural member of his high school’s Alumni Hall of Fame. He joined the Albany International League in 1936, and his contract was sold to the Washington Senators in 1937. Welaj made his debut as a Washington Senator on May 2, 1939, and this was the first time his fans, friends, and family would see him play as a professional. “We were told it was to be ‘Johnny Welaj Appreciation Day,’” said Legs. Johnny’s contingent of fans gathered around home plate before Game One to celebrate. It was not until then that Welaj was informed by the Yankee management that Lou Gehrig would give his retirement speech that same day.
For the first time ever, he was afraid to be on a ball field. During Game One, Lou told Joe McCarthy, “I’d give a month’s pay to get out of this.” Joe did not respond. The Yanks lost the first game, 3-2. The Yankees lined up along the third-base line and the Senators down the first-base line. A band marched onto the field. Lou had lost weight, his uniform no longer fit as he shuffled toward home plate with his head down, arms hanging lifeless by his sides. Ed Barrow walked beside Gehrig, edging him along. It was July 4, 1939, before Game Two of the doubleheader. “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” was about to begin, and 61,000 fans sat in silence at Yankee Stadium. Now making his way from the dugout, he has been regarded as the greatest first baseman in the game. Even though his body had been breaking down since the beginning of 1938, he never complained. Lou Gehrig was the heart of the New York Yankees. The Yankees hung the World Series buntings out around the stadium and invited the 1927 Yankees’ team to this event. Special guests were introduced, including Babe Ruth and Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. Then Lou received the gifts, a fishing rod, silver plates, and a trophy. Lou never said a word, as these gifts were handed to him. The gifts piled up around his feet, as he was not strong enough to hold them. Lou Gehrig also became the first Major League player to have his uniform number retired. Gehrig would be the only Yankee to ever wear the #4. The Yankee emcee, Sid Mercer, asked Lou if he had anything to say. Gehrig, head still down, wiping away tears with a white handkerchief, shook his head “no.” Then the fans begin to understand this was it, the last time they may see the “Iron Horse.” They stood in unison and chanted, “We want Lou! We want Lou!” Gehrig stood still, afraid he might collapse if he moved too quickly. Manager Joe McCarthy whispered in Lou’s ear. Gehrig slowly stepped toward the microphone and the fans quieted down. It was as silent as an empty classroom. Gehrig ran his hand through his hair, then leaned forward and poured his heart out for everyone to hear. Lou Gehrig would speak without notes, while ringing his blue cap between both his hands. His words may have been the strongest message anyone had ever heard. I’m convinced that most of you have only heard a portion of Gehrig’s farewell speech, perhaps the first two sentences and the last two. Below are his words in their entirety.
“For the past two weeks, you’ve 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. When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in the ballpark 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 such a grand little fellow as Miller Huggins? To have spent the next nine years with that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Who wouldn’t feel honored to room with such a grand guy as Bill Dickey? 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 the groundskeepers and office staff and writers and old timers and players and concessionaires all remember you with trophies—that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law, who takes sides with you, in squabbles against her own daughter—that’s something. When you have a father and mother who worked all their lives so that 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 might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank You.”
Henry Louis Gehrig grew up in New York City, the only survivor among four siblings. Lou learned about the game of baseball by collecting baseball cards from his father’s Sweet Corporal cigarette packs. A mama’s boy, he was considered shy and socially awkward, strong but clumsy, a misfit on a team of drinkers and hell raisers. There is no doubt that Gehrig and Ruth formed the greatest slugging tandem in baseball history. He married his sweetheart Eleanor. He called her “Pal” and she called him “Luke.” In January of 1938, Lou went to Hollywood to act as an extra on one of the most popular westerns at that time, Rawhide. He was having trouble with his balance. Bruises and blisters began to appear on his hands. Still, Lou never missed a game that year. Gehrig would be diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or what is now called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” Doctor’s gave him hope, even wrote him letters of encouragement, all while telling his wife, Eleanor Gehrig, the terrible truth. There was nothing they could do, Lou would not survive. Lou Gehrig died on June 2, 1941. He was 37 years old and, as expected, fought to live until the end. Some say the Good Lord wept as the New York Yankees were rained out that day.
Our friend, Johnny Welaj, passed away on September 13, 2003. He had been living at the “Autumn Leaves of Arlington” Assisted Living Center. He was 89. Interestingly, Johnny had a brother also named Lou, who played with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1942 to 1950.
The Yankees won Game two for Lou, 11-1. How lucky I have been to see and experience the greatness of Lou Gehrig through the eyes of Johnny Welaj. Happy Independence Day!
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.