by Steve Adubato, PhD
Very few speeches stand the test of time, but July 4 marked the 75th anniversary of one such speech given by a dying Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium.
Gehrig's "Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth" farewell address resonates as powerfully today as it did then for the tens of thousands who witnessed it in person, and the countless others who have heard and seen excerpts from it since.
After playing in 2,130 straight games over 15 years, Gehrig, known as the "Iron Horse," was stricken with a debilitating disease that would end his playing days, and less than two years after this speech, his life. Gehrig knew he was dying.
His teammates knew it, and the 60,000 fans in the stadium sensed it. Undaunted, Gehrig uttered these unforgettable words: "For the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth."
But, it was the rest of what Gehrig said in less than two minutes that teaches us about what it takes to connect with so many under such difficult circumstances.
Gehrig decided not to make the speech about himself. He talked about why he was so lucky "to have been in ball parks for 17 years" and to have received so much "kindness and encouragement" from his fans. Then Gehrig turned to his teammates and said:
"Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky to have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins (his manager). Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy. Sure, I’m lucky."
What touched so many about Gehrig’s speech was his extraordinary humility. Clearly he was not "lucky."
At 37, he was stricken with a fatal disease in the prime of his career. But he chose to focus on the positives. Instead of eliciting pity, he decided to say "thanks."
He thanked the groundskeepers, and then turned to his family and thanked "a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body." And finally, Gehrig thanked his wife, who he called "a tower of strength--the finest I know."
With tears in the eyes of thousands in the stadium, Gehrig concluded, "I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."
Clearly, none of us would ever want to be in Gehrig's position facing a fatal illness, much less having to speak in front of a massive audience. But the lesson Gehrig taught us 75 years ago is as powerful today as it was at the time.
Regardless of the challenges you face, one of the keys to connecting with your audience, is to make it about them.
Gehrig talked about himself, but only in the context of how others treated him.
He chose to deliver a positive, inspiring message that had nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with how one chooses to live one’s life and face mortality.
Our communication in public--even in the most difficult and challenging circumstances--is a product of the choices we make.
The choice that Gehrig made on July 4, 1939, was to leave others with a focus on the positive instead pity for the victim. Easier said than done, I know. But that’s what special people do under extraordinary circumstances, and that's how great speeches are made, and why sometimes they live on forever.