"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. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans."
-- Lou Gehrig, July 4, 1939
Those words were uttered by Lou Gehrig in a ceremony between games of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium nearly 70 years ago as he was dying from ALS -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- a disease that was unknown at the time, but that would ultimately bear his name.
In honor of Gehrig's memory, Major League Baseball has teamed with four major non-profit organizations to find a cure for the illness that destroys the nerve cells controlling muscles, causes complete paralysis and ultimately leads to death an average of 3-5 years after diagnosis.
The campaign, called "4♦ALS Awareness," will culminate with Gehrig's words being read at all Major League ballparks where games are played this coming July 4, during the seventh-inning stretch.
"We are honored and pleased to have the opportunity to join these four important organizations in an attempt to make progress in the fight against ALS, a disease that is associated with one of the greatest players in baseball history," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement."Lou Gehrig displayed tremendous courage and strength in the face of a debilitating illness, and his speech 70 years ago still stands as one of the defining moments in baseball history."
The four participating organizations are The ALS Association, ALS TDI, Augie's Quest (the Muscular Dystrophy Association's ALS research initiative), and Project A.L.S. MLB.com will also conduct an online auction to raise funds for the initiative.
"Major League Baseball is making a huge difference in the fight against Lou Gehrig's disease through this July 4 effort," said Augie Nieto, founder and chief inspiration officer for MDA's Augie's Quest. "Both in terms of public awareness and fundraising, the MLB contribution is significant and has a profound impact on the lives of people living with this devastating disease."
Gehrig, the Yankees first baseman and Hall of Famer, was still in the midst of his famous 2,130-game consecutive playing streak when he began to feel weakness in his muscles. Eight games into the 1939 season, on May 2 at old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Gehrig decided he couldn't go and ended the streak. He'd never play again.
Fred Rice, an usher at Tiger Stadium that day, recalled on the 60th anniversary of Gehrig's last game that he muffed a few balls during batting practice at first base that day, threw down his glove in disgust and didn't return to the field.
"I remember it just like it was yesterday," Rice told Knight-Ridder a decade ago.
Gehrig passed away on June 2, 1941, only 17 days before his 38th birthday. His record consecutive-game playing streak was broken by Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. on Sept. 6, 1995, at Baltimore's Camden Yards. Ripken would far surpass the mark, playing in 2,632 consecutive games before voluntarily sitting one out against the Yankees late in the 1998 season at Baltimore's home park.
Generations later, Catfish Hunter, another Yankees Hall of Famer, died while suffering from ALS on Sept. 9, 1999. He was only 53.
"ALS is a crisis. It is an unmet medical need. It has been labeled an incurable disease, but with the technology and expertise available now we believe this problem can and will be solved," said Sean Scott, president of ALS TDI. "This is exactly what is happening in our lab today. We are grateful to be part of this initiative and encourage everyone to get involved in the '4♦ALS Awareness' campaign."
As part of the 70th anniversary commemoration of Gehrig's famous speech, MLB will ask all players to wear a "4♦ALS" patch on their chest.
"The ALS Association is proud to partner with Major League Baseball, and our ALS organization team members in this historic initiative to raise awareness and resources in the fight against ALS," said Allen L. Finkelstein, chair of The ALS Association National Board of Trustees. "The '4♦ALS Awareness' campaign provides renewed hope that Lou Gehrig's greatest accomplishment will not be measured by statistics, but by the lives saved in his name."
"Project A.L.S. is thrilled to partner with Major League Baseball and the ALS Community to forward research that will result in effective treatments and a cure," said Valerie Estess, founder and director of research of Project A.L.S.
"This is Lou Gehrig's legacy."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com.