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On the Way to Today: Recalling a Lou Gehrig farewell

On the Way to Today: Recalling a Lou Gehrig farewell
10 Jun
7:09

With his emotion-choked voice echoing eerily over public-address amplifiers in cavernous Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, July 4, 1939, baseball legend Lou Gehrig delivered his public farewell in one of major league baseball’s most poignant moments 79 years ago.

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got,” he managed to say with his head bowed, wiping tears from his face while studying the loose ground under him in his pin-striped uniformed legs standing at home plate before 61,000 fans on that memorable day declaring, “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on this earth.”

On June 2, 1941 Lou Gehrig died.

Although I was never privileged to see him play, on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 1939, this writer saw Gehrig at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. The occasion was a three-generation outing enjoyed by a grandfather, father (the late William H. Vande Water) and his son. With the two older relatives, I “piled into grandpa’s Chevrolet coupe” and left from his Holland home. Leaving before daybreak, we drove all morning on two-lane roads to get to downtown Detroit for the afternoon game.

Sitting in the grandstand on the first-base side, behind the Yankee dugout, it would be the only such trip this threesome would make together because my grandfather, Martinus (Tien) Vande Water died the following January of a cerebral hemorrhage.

I know Detroit won the game, 7-6, because I kept the scorecard for years. I knew one of my heroes, Charley Gehringer, scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning. I remember Joe DiMaggio hit a home run.

Holland Evening Sentinel files confirmed the victory, reporting that Gehringer doubled and scored on a “sizzling double” by Pinky Higgins. New York had scored five runs in the ninth inning including DiMaggio’s homer.

What I remember occurred before the game. The incident wasn’t reported. The scene is etched in my mind.

Just before the game started, this figure emerged from the Yankee dugout. He walked to home plate. He wore No. 4 on the back of his uniform with New York spelled on the front.

Studying my program, I saw: 4 – Gehrig, 1b. That was baseball lingo for number, name and position.

Gehrig walked slowly. He kept his head down.

The Yankee captain reached home plate and unceremoniously handed the official New York lineup to the head umpire. The crowd noticed him. When he pivoted, turned around and started to the dugout the crowd stood. We stood also. The crowd applauded. We must have done the same.

During the thunderous applause, the Yankee immortal stopped, looked up toward the audience behind home plate, slowly lifted his hand and waved.

When the last of his blue baseball cap disappeared into the dugout, people all around me were talking, almost in hushed whispers, and seemed to be saying the same thing: “That was Lou Gehrig, the greatest Yankee of them all.”

I never saw him again. Lou Gehrig never again played a game of baseball. He was given a position on the New York City parole commission and two years later on Monday, June 2, 1941, died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — better known today as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

I remember the day and still have the newspaper showing Gehrig’s picture. Above the photo were two simple words: “He’s gone.”

Why the standing ovation? I didn’t know then. Why do I remember?

It may have been Gehrig’s death at age 37, the 1939 Detroit scene or his July 4 famed speech that is a part of baseball memorabilia, solidified in my mind in 1942, when Gary Cooper starred in the motion picture “Pride of the Yankees.”

Whatever the reason, I’ll never forget it. I saw Lou Gehrig.

— Randy Vande Water is a Holland resident. Contact him at newsroom@hollandsentinel.com.

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