Monday, July 6, 2009

Was Lou Gehrig really the luckiest man on the face of the Earth?

Did you get to hear it? If you didn’t, then you must have been hanging out under a rock all weekend!

I’m talking about Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech—the one he gave at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939.

This last weekend marked the 70th anniversary of that speech and in a fitting tribute to #4 and to all individuals and families living with ALS around the world, Lou Gehrig’s “…luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech was read at baseball diamonds all across the country—and then replayed many times over on news reports all weekend long.

I remember the first time I heard that speech—or a Hollywood version of it—in The Pride of the Yankees. I have to admit, I had trouble at the time accepting that Lou Gehrig could honestly consider himself, “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” especially considering the future he was facing. It just didn’t ring true to me.

I’d like to say that in time, I came to understand better what he was trying to say. But, in all honesty, that didn’t happen… I continued to struggle with the concept.

ALS is a terrible disease, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone diagnosed with a fatal neurodegenerative disease could consider himself “lucky.” Then again, perhaps my reaction is colored by my personal connection to the disease. In 2005, my brother-in-law was diagnosed with ALS. He died last November. I don’t think he was very lucky. I doubt that he, or anyone else with ALS, went around thinking how lucky he was for having been diagnosed with an untreatable, incurable disease that was likely to take his life in a mere 3-5 years.

At the same time, I have developed a new appreciation for the incredible strength and courage that is born out of this disease. I marvel at the ALS patients I have met who have not given up, but who have undertaken Herculean efforts to make a difference for future ALS patients. Who have created not-for-profit organizations, raised money for ALS research, and inspired thousands of people to work for the day when the horrors of ALS are a distant memory.

If there is any good fortune in being diagnosed with such a terrible disease, it must be in the unique opportunity to discover the unfathomable well of pure will and determination that most of us never have a reason to find within ourselves. Or perhaps it is in discovering just how many people truly love and care for you—sometimes, people you have never even met.

As I heard the famous farewell speech recited again over the weekend, I was struck by the way Gehrig focused on the “kindness and encouragement” he received from his fans. And the number of dear friends that he mentioned by name. Seeing the footage of him with his former rival, Babe Ruth, was just downright touching. In his speech, he expressed heart-felt gratitude for his parents, and his mother-in-law, and his dear wife, “who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed.”

So, maybe I am coming to understand just a bit of what he was saying. Discovering your own personal power to change the world and knowing that you have friends and family who love and care for you and are willing to join you on the quest… that’s pretty amazing!

Perhaps what has helped me to understand this better than anything is my affiliation with Prize4Life—talk about an amazing group of friends and family who have rallied for a cause! The people who created this unique organization, and who continue to support it, are helping me to comprehend whatever bit of good that there can be in this lousy disease.

Maybe the best way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech is to do something—anything—to reach out to ALS patients around the world and let them know that they have friends in far-flung regions. That there are hundreds of thousands of us out here—all around the world—who care and who are working to create a world without ALS. Blog, tweet, volunteer, donate, call, email, write, hug… do something! It may not make every ALS patient in the world feel like the luckiest person on the face of the earth, but it can’t hurt!

So… what are you going to do?

James E. Giessler
President & Chief Development Officer


  1. As the mother who lost her son to ALS...I do agree that...and witnessed incredible strength in my son Jon...lucky...NO.

    I shall rejoice the day a cure or at least a treatment is found.

  2. every time i hear this story it makes me wanna cry