UNFORGETTABLE FOURTH | The luckiest man delivered the greatest speech on this date in 1939


Lou-Gehrig-Columbia-footballThe luckiest man on the face of the earth might have been the greatest baseball player who ever lived.

And on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig delivered perhaps the greatest speech in sports history.

But first, did you know he went to Columbia on a football scholarship?

Before he was the Iron Horse, Gehrig was known as Columbia Lou, starting at fullback and defensive tackle in 1922, his sophomore year. (During Gehrig’s last year at Commerce High School in New York, his mother Christina was hired as a cook at Columbia’s Sigma Nu fraternity house.)

He might have played football as a freshman, too, but the summer before his first semester he followed the risky advice of New York Giants manager John McGraw and played for the Eastern League’s Hartford Senators. After a dozen games, Henry Lewis was discovered to be Lou Gehrig, who was then banned as a freshman for violating college eligibility rules.

After his sophomore football season, Gehrig played his only baseball season for the Lions in 1923.

And on April 18 — the day Yankee Stadium opened for the first time —  Yankees scout Paul Krichell was at Columbia’s South Field to witnesse Gehrig’s 17 strikeouts against Williams College, a school record not matched until 1968, by Paul Brosnan against Rhode Island.

Krichell also realized, according to Gehrig’s Columbia Hall of Fame profile, “that a man who could hit like Gehrig belonged in a Yankee uniform.”

GehrigCUGehrig batted .444 with seven home runs in 19 games for the Lions with a slugging percentage of .937, which remains a school single-season record. His home run record stood until Mike Wilhite hit eight in 1978.

Gehrig first garnered national attention for hitting a grand slam out of Wrigley Field in 1920 for his New York high school team, and his home runs at Columbia were also epic. According to Columbia’s history:

Gehrig’s record-breaking home runs for the Lions bounced into the Journalism building and landed at Alma Mater’s feet, more than 400 feet away from the home plate then situated at the southeast corner of South Field.

But Gehrig wouldn’t add to his Columbia totals. After his sophomore year, he signed with the Yankees for a $1,500 bonus.

“There’s no getting away from it, a fellow has to eat,” Gehrig told The New York Times in 1939. “At the end of my sophomore year my father was taken ill and we had to have money. I had been playing on the college ball team and I had had eight offers to join professional clubs. So when there was no money coming in there was nothing for me to do but sign up.”

While he left school early, he earned his BA from Columbia in 1925 and returned as a guest lecturer in the 1930s.

By 1925, Gehrig was a regular in the Yankees’ starting lineup, and remained there for a  2,130 consecutive games, a record surpassed by Cal Ripken Jr. on Sept. 6, 1995.

In 14 seasons, Gehrig hit 493 home runs, batted .340 and slugged 23 grand slams, still the major league record, and played for six World Series champions. In a 1932 game, he became the first player in the 20th century to hit four home runs in a game.

He played until 1939, when he was stricken with the spinal disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He died on June 2, 1941, 17 days short of his 38th birthday.

But he was immortalized by his farewell speech on July 4, 1939, at Yankee Stadium:

Above: Lou Gehrig, Columbia football player, in 1922. He started at fullback and defensive tackle for the Lions, who went 5-4. (Photo by New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Middle: As a pitcher for Columbia’s baseball team, Gehrig set the single-record for strikeouts that still stands. He was 6-4 in 1923. (Courtesy Columbia University Archives)

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.