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The New York Yankees, fandom, and the ghosts of the past

Or, what we talk about when we talk about the Yankees.

Lou Gehrig Farewell 1

On July 4, 1939, more than 60,000 fans packed into Yankee Stadium on a hot summer day for a doubleheader between the Yankees and the Washington Senators. The Yankees dropped the first game 3-2, but roared back to win the second game 11-1. The doubleheader wasn’t the real reason that many people were there that day, though.

Just over two weeks earlier, on June 19, Lou Gehrig was formally diagnosed with ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that is now colloquially known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. His diagnosis was revealed to the public that same day, and just two days later, on June 21, the New York Yankees formally announced the Iron Horse’s retirement from the game.

Between games on July 4, a microphone was carefully positioned at home plate and players from both teams surrounded the area. With a little help from the crowd, an emotional Lou Gehrig, donning the pinstripes with his cap by his side, stepped up to the microphone to address all in attendance. What followed is the stuff of legends.

“For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
-Lou Gehrig

For readers of a certain age, the mention of July 4, 1939 likely gave away what I was going to talk about in the paragraphs that followed. For others, likely those closer in age to me, you probably clued in when Gehrig’s diagnosis was brought up. Perhaps it was the image of the solitary microphone at home plate that did it for others, or perhaps it took until the inclusion of the now-infamous quotation — “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” — for you to understand what this was about. Either way, I think it’s a safe assumption that most Yankees fans know about Lou Gehrig’s farewell remarks.

Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day was held 83 years ago to the day. Though our record of his speech is technically incomplete — supposedly there were only four lines of the speech that were recorded, and the rest of it was pieced together through reports from various newspapers — this moment in time has become something of legend, if not common knowledge, for most Yankees fans, regardless of their age or location.

I was born in Canada on July 3, 1992. For all intents and purposes, I was born 53 years after Lou Gehrig delivered what is arguably the most famous speech in professional sports history, and probably one of the most famous speeches of all-time. Despite never having had the privilege of watching Lou Gehrig play, I feel like, by virtue of our own weird form of myth-making, I know his career on an intimate level. More than just his career, though, I feel like I know his story on an intimate level. I honestly cannot say that I remember the first time I heard the Luckiest Man in the World speech, but I’ve been able to rhyme off three or four lines of it at will for as long as I can remember, and I’m positive you know exactly what lines I’m referring to.

The same goes for Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and all the rest of the Yankees legends that made their marks well before my time. Even before I had the opportunity to fully comprehend the game of baseball itself, I knew about Gehrig’s seeming inability to get hurt and Mantle’s tape-measure home runs and DiMaggio’s hit streak and Ruth’s, well, everything. I never got to see a single one of these players play, but I know their stories more intricately than any box score could tell me.

As a kid of the ‘90s, the Yankees I grew up with were the Core Four (+ Bernie). The Yankees I grew up with were not the larger-than-life personalities of the 1920s and 1930s, but were still giants among men. The Yankees I grew up with were talked about amongst the very best baseball teams to ever step foot on the diamond. The Yankees I grew up with are counted among the greatest professional sports dynasties of all-time, regardless of sport.

I can’t help but wonder, though: For younger Yankees fans, coming of age with Aaron Judge & Co., are Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera now the stuff of legend? Have we mythologized their careers to the point that their stories are now passed down to the younger generations, similar to the ways in which the stories of Ruth, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Gehrig were passed down to us?

This is what I’m trying to get at here. As Yankees fans, we, perhaps more than any other professional sports team out there, are burdened by our shared histories and collective memories. Actually, you know what, maybe “burden” is the wrong word to use here, because it can sometimes imply a negative connotation where one does not exist. Let me try that again.

As Yankees fans, we, perhaps more than any other professional sports team out there, are privileged enough to be living witnesses to some of the greatest athletic feats in the history of professional sports. These collective memories, whether they’re the careers of Ruth and Gehrig or Jeter and Rivera, and the narratives we’ve created over the years to make sense of their superhuman qualities are so intricate to this team’s identity that people like me, who were born 53 years after Lou Gehrig’s final public appearance in pinstripes, are still able to feel an intimate connection to their lives and their careers. I’m not sure how many other fans get to claim that in earnest.