Rare Disease Report

2017 Marks 78th Anniversary of Lou Gehrig's "Luckiest Man" Speech

JUNE 29, 2017
Mathew Shanley
“Luck,” as definited by Merriam-Webster, is “a force that brings good fortune.”
Independence Day, or the 4th of July, is a day where many Americans consider themselves lucky – Some may feel lucky to live in a country that encourages life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Others might think having the day off from work to be lucky. Children could feel lucky to watch the fireworks.
July 4, 2017 marks the 78th anniversary of a speech from a man who had a different view of luck, though. In 1939, former New York Yankees first baseman and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient Lou Gehrig delivered what would become one of the most famous speeches in baseball history.
Gehrig uttered these now-famous words during a home plate ceremony at the original Yankee Stadium, referring to his then-recent diagnosis with ALS: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
ALS – which is also commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” because of how rare it was at the time of his diagnosis – is a classic motor neuron disease. Early symptoms include muscle weakness or stiffness, but as the disease evolves, the abilities to move, speak, swallow, and eventually breathe are rapidly lost.
Life expectancy of an ALS patient after diagnosis is 2-5 years. Gehrig died 23 months after he delivered his speech.
Thanks to his lifetime .340 batting average, Gehrig is remembered as one of baseball’s all-time greatest hitters. He is often endearingly referred to as the game’s “Iron Horse” because of his 2,130 consecutive games played; a record that lived for 56 years before it was broken by Baltimore Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken, Jr. in 1995  – the same year in which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved riluzole (Rilutek); the first drug shown to prolong the survival of ALS patients.
His speech, which acknowledges teammates, opponents, groundskeepers, and the strength of his wife, has lived on for nearly 8 decades as the fight against ALS continues. Still, no current cure for the disease exists, and treatment options are limited to Riluzole, which is perceived to lessen damage to motor neurons by reducing the release of glutamate.
“So, I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break,” concluded Gehrig, “but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”
The full transcript of Gehrig’s speech can be found at lougehrig.com/about/farewell.html.

In 2014, the ALS Therapy Development Institute combined the speech with a reenactment from other former Yankees including Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher and Derek Jeter, and that can be seen below:

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