TLDR: Lou Gehrig had to retire from baseball after being diagnosed with ALS, a muscular degenerative disease. His retirement speech inspired audiences because he told them how “lucky” he was to have had a great career and a supportive family, rather than focusing on his ailment.

So What? Audiences were uplifted and inspired by Gehrig’s unexpected speech, which focused on gratitude and his story as a player and as a person. Here’s how you can inspire your listeners with authentic gratitude.

They called him the “Iron Horse.”

Lou Gehrig was at the top of his game as a first baseman for the New York Yankees when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Because it affected motor coordination and led to eventual paralysis, he could no longer play the sport he loved.

During Gehrig’s retirement speech, he surprised audiences by calling himself the “luckiest man on the face of this earth” then describing why he thought so. The speech was given in 1939, a time when many Americans were facing hard times due to a decade-long Great Depression. They’d also go on to face World War II in the coming years.

Gehrig had been playing professional baseball for 17 years when he was diagnosed with ALS. He had a record 2,130 consecutive game streak that would stand until 1995, a career grand slam record, and he won the Triple Crown in 1934. Long before his retirement speech on July 4, he inspired audiences to do their best and never give up trying to improve their lives and their country.

The speech was an inspirational cap to his stellar career. It showed his fans they were fortunate even if they faced hard times and that it was important to look at the positives of life to deal with the negatives. As communicators, such a message can easily fall flat if it’s not done in a way that shows authenticity and genuine spirit.

Tell the Story Behind Your Words

Gehrig’s speech was not just an empty platitude about him being lucky during hard times. It was full of examples that told the story of his life in baseball and with his family that made him feel lucky in the middle of the adversity evident in a diagnosis that would eventually take away his ability to walk, eat, and breathe.

Gehrig named colleagues he felt lucky to have in his life like his manager Joe McCarthy, who he called an “outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball.” He also named his family members and why he felt blessed to have them in his life. He called his wife a “tower of strength.” He even praised his mother-in-law for taking his side in arguments.

Using plenty of descriptive examples in your own communication will prevent it from being full of platitudes that have little meaning, so it’ll ring with sincerity and truth. There’s power in storytelling, and if you paint a picture in your listeners’ heads, they’ll remember your words better as you tell your story.

Let the Limelight Find You

Gehrig didn’t even want to speak the night he delivered those powerful and inspirational words. He said he was too moved by the event that honored his career and life. He was known as a player that did his part for the team and didn’t seek the limelight. When he was thrust into it, however, it became clear he had important things to say.

Communicators and marketers need to spend more time making sure their messages ring true. They should spend less time seeking the limelight with messages that are trite or contrived. When you gain a reputation for communicating valuable and important messages, there are certain moments when the limelight will come to you, making your marketing efforts easier.

Focus on Gratitude

Just weeks after getting a career-ending, terminal diagnosis, Gehrig’s speech was centered around one thing: gratitude. While surely Gehrig experienced disappointment, anger, and all the stages of grief after his diagnosis, he chose to focus instead on the gratitude for what he had experienced in his life.

It isn’t that Gehrig was ignoring his diagnosis or trying to minimize it, but that he was grateful for the wonderful life and career he’d had. He chose to focus on this truth, perhaps because it was the least evident, and thus the most powerful.

Gratitude is effective for communication, as it keeps your audience focused on positive emotions rather than negative ones. The gratitude Gehrig expressed inspired others to focus on their blessings rather than the things that weren’t going so great.

Surprise Your Audience

The last thing Gehrig’s audience expected was for him to talk about gratitude and how lucky he was. News reports had circulated in recent weeks about his ALS diagnosis, and fans were devastated to know their hero wouldn’t be able to play baseball anymore, and that he’d face a very slow decline.

The power in his speech stems from its unexpected message, which uplifted everyone who heard it. When communicators can “flip the script” and give audiences something unexpected, that will always draw more attention to the message. Especially when the message is a positive one.


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