In education-based athletics, transformational leaders embrace a definition of success which looks very different from how the final scoreboard might read. Appreciating opponents and demonstrating gratitude are core virtues of purpose-centered youth sports. Each November as Thanksgiving and the holiday season nears, we are given a new opportunity to reflect and give thanks. Each of us has a lot to be grateful for, no matter our circumstances.
Sports have long been held as possessing the potential to bring people together to rally for a cause, overcome differences, and bring people from all walks of life together during difficult times; sports have an incredible unifying effect in the United States. Athletics are at its finest when they bring out the best in us as people and there are many great examples from sports history.
One of the most public and amazing displays of gratitude occurred on a baseball field. It was July 4, 1939, and Lou Gehrig walked to a microphone near home plate at Yankee Stadium to give a farewell speech to the more than 62,000 fans in attendance. This is a story I share with our school’s athletes each year before Thanksgiving. As we enter a season to count our blessings and say thank you—I invite and encourage each of you to find ways to model gratitude (and feel free to use this story about Lou Gehrig if it is in anyway helpful!).
At only 35 years old, Gehrig, or the “Iron Horse” as he was affectionately called by his fans, was retiring from baseball because of a degenerative disease that would take his life only two years later. The baseball legend fought back tears as he thanked his fans, calling himself “the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” The degenerative disease Gehrig battled was later named for him—Lou Gehrig’s Disease (also known as ALS).
Below is Gehrig’s famous farewell speech; as you read his words, it is impossible not to feel his grateful spirit shining through. Think about the message Gehrig gives as he spoke to thousands of fans about retiring from baseball and his rapidly declining health.
“Fans, 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. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. 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. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert (the owner of the Yankees at the time)? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow (the Yankee’s general manager)? To have spent 6 years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins (a friend and teammate of Gehrig’s)? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, the smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?
Sure I’m lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift—that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remembers you with trophies—that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her daughter—that’s something.
When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body— it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been your tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed—that’s the finest I know. So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”
Gehrig’s speech is a great starting point for a discussion with our colleagues and teams. Below are examples of questions with potential talking points.
- Why do you think Gehrig’s words continue to inspire almost 80 years after the fact? [Potential follow-up: Gehrig met one of life’s greatest realities head-on: life is fragile, but at the same time it is rich and joyful. We don’t know how much time we will have on this Earth and should take advantage of every opportunity.]
- What can we learn from Gehrig’s speech? [Potential follow-up: In what could be a very dark moment for most people, Gehrig shows incredible thankfulness. While we might not be able to relate to the health struggles Gehrig faced, we see how much his team and sport meant to him. In front of thousands in a short speech, he thanked the fans, his teammates, a close friend, the Yankees’ management and coach, and his family. These were the people he held dearest. He even thanked the Yankee Stadium clubhouse attendants.]
- In what ways does Gehrig put competition and life into perspective for all of us? [Potential follow-up (of many possible great answers):
- The arch-rival of the Yankees, the New York Giants, had even sent well-wishes and a gift…and Gehrig thanked him for it in his speech. We value appreciating our opponent—this exchange between the Yankee slugger and the Giants shows remarkable perspective and one of the things that is so great about sport. To be able to put rivalries aside, and for the Giants to send a gift to Gehrig, think about the power of that message and what it must have meant to Gehrig!
- Gehrig closes by saying “I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you.” Our tough breaks pale in comparison to the diagnosis Gehrig received. Let’s focus on the good we have in life—what we have to be thankful for—and not focus on our tough breaks.
We have a lot to be thankful for in our lives, jobs, and on our teams—let’s take a page from Gehrig and be thankful for the great opportunity we have each day to be a part of educational athletics and teach such valuable lessons to our next generation of leaders!