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July 4, 1939 was "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day" at New York's Yankee Stadium. Fans came from all over to honor and bid farewell to their "Iron Man". Earlier that year on April 30, Lou Gehrig played in his last game as a baseball player. For over 14 seasons through thick and thin Gehrig put on his Yankee uniform and showed up for work every day. His consecutive games played streak of 2130 games was thought at the time to be an unbreakable record. Gehrig’s sudden and startling loss of power, timing, and agility prompted him to retire abruptly at the age of 35. Recognizing that something was physically wrong with him, he selflessly chose to remove himself from the lineup rather than compromise his team’s performance. His condition accelerated rapidly, reducing the once indomitable athlete to a shell of his former self. And so looking for answers, Gehrig, alone on June 13, 1939 checked himself into the world famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. After six days of tests Gehrig was told that he had a rare and incurable neurological disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
It is extraordinary to think that Gehrig knew his fate before he even stepped up to that microphone on July 4, 1939. In the most famous speech ever uttered by an American athlete, he proclaimed, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." This one sentence, seared into our collective American consciousness forever, exemplified the dignity, grace and humility that Gehrig personified. Nobody that day could have imagined that within two years Lou Gehrig would be dead at 37 years old.
It is against this background that on September 13, 1939, approximately three months after checking out of the Mayo Clinic, Gehrig wrote this letter to Dr. Paul O'Leary. Dr. O’Leary was Gehrig’s host upon arriving at the Mayo Clinic and was chosen by Gehrig's doctors at the clinic to be his point of contact with regard to his treatment. O’Leary would come to be one of the most important and closest men to Gehrig in the final stage of his life. This letter is unpublished and originates directly from the family of Dr. O'Leary. It is believed to be one of the last items that Lou Gehrig personally signed, as researchers on this subject have determined that after 1939 nearly all Gehrig “signed” material was either stamped or secretarially signed by his wife Eleanor.
We at SCP Auctions are honored to offer this rare and extraordinary Gehrig signed letter on the 75th anniversary (April 30, 2014 - the opening day of this auction) of a day that both ended Lou Gehrig's longevity streak and tragically became his final appearance as a baseball player. Rather than restate its extraordinary content (which can be read in print and online), we have opted to simply provide commentary.
In the field of historical manuscripts, subcategories include contracts, notes, checks, documents and letters. Only a personal letter such as this reveals one’s innermost thoughts, and you would be hard-pressed to find a better example from any of the giants of American sports history. This transcendent letter lays bare Gehrig’s humanity and mortality. In excruciating detail, this heartbreaking letter reveals the symptoms with which Gehrig struggled and his steadfast resolve to fight. For Gehrig, our "Iron Man", to describe in his own words his difficulty in doing simple things that we all take for granted like brushing our teeth, buttoning our shirts, combing our hair or taking off or putting on our clothing (in this case Gehrig's balance problem in dealing with his trousers) is at once both heart-breaking and inspiring. The letter is a unique window into the private battle for survival that Gehrig entered for the last two years of his life, a battle that was carefully hidden from the public. In the face of dire circumstances, Gehrig’s letter also shows his unfailing character, including humor, generosity and his appreciation and gratitude for others. It is no wonder that when the All Century Baseball Team was chosen in 1999, 60 years after this letter was written, Lou Gehrig received more votes than anyone.
We at SCP were fortunate in 2006 to bring to market Babe Ruth's 1920 contract which sold the Babe from the Boston Red Sox to the N.Y. Yankees. That great piece went for a record $996,000. In 2010, another "paper" document - Dr. James Naismith's signed copy of his Original Rules of Basketball - sold for over $4,000,000. Both stand as documents of paramount historical significance, but by nature are intrinsically void of emotion. We have yet to encounter a document of a more personal, emotional nature related to an American icon of greater magnitude. Today more people worldwide may know the name Lou Gehrig by its association with a fatal disease than by his place as one of the greatest athletes in our history. That is why we are of the opinion that this letter is clearly among the most significant Gehrig pieces ever offered, and that it is and will probably remain the most coveted and significant letter in sport.
The September 13, 1939 three-page letter is typewritten (as Gehrig’s condition would have required) on his personal Larchmont, N.Y. letterhead, remaining in pristine condition. His closing signature “Lou” precisely matches the letters conveyance in its authenticity, brevity and elegance in the face of adversity.
Includes a LOA from PSA/DNA (Auto. Grade: 9).
This lot has a Reserve Price that has not been met.