Gehrig's courage honored around MLB

Gehrig's courage honored around MLB

This year's Fourth of July celebrations at 15 Major League ballparks featured more than fireworks and cheering for the red, white and blue.

They also offered an opportunity for fans to honor one of the greatest players in the game's history and make a difference in the search for a cure to a deadly disease.

Manny Ramirez

In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the farewell speech of Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig, every home team held its own on-field ceremonies Saturday in an effort to raise awareness and financial support for the fight against ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

MLB has kicked off a new charitable campaign called 4♦ALS Awareness, working with four leading organizations -- all of which have the same goal: to find a cure for ALS, a disease that destroys nerve cells controlling muscles, ultimately causing complete paralysis. There is no cure, and those afflicted have a life expectancy of three to five years from diagnosis.

The initiative culminated in the July 4 program. All 15 home teams on Saturday hosted on-field readings of Gehrig's famed farewell speech, and all MLB players wore "4♦ALS" patches on their uniforms.

In addition, each team put an individual stamp on its program.

Needless to say, one of the most heartfelt and emotional tributes came at the new Yankee Stadium, across the street from where Gehrig delivered his famous "Luckiest Man" speech 70 years ago Saturday between games of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators in front of a crowd of 61,808.

With a red, white and blue floral wreath hanging on Gehrig's plaque at the Stadium's Monument Park, fans watched a special video presentation paying tribute to "The Iron Horse."

The video opened with grainy footage of a 36-year-old Gehrig, knowing his ultimate fate as he walked to home plate. Displayed on the large center-field screen, Gehrig began his iconic speech with, "Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about the bad break I got."

After a transition, Yankees shortstop and captain Derek Jeter continued with, "Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

A host of other Yankees stars followed Jeter in reciting lines from the speech, leading into Gehrig's conclusion: "So I close by saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you."

Inside the entrance at Gate 4 -- in honor of Gehrig's uniform number -- at the new Yankee Stadium, a large panel photograph is hung, depicting Gehrig standing at home plate delivering his speech. On adjacent speakers, an audio loop delivers Gehrig's voice on a continuous basis.

Prior to their game against the Blue Jays, the Yankees also honored longtime fan Michael Goldsmith, who contributed to the development of the initiative by petitioning Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to launch the 4♦ALS program.

Goldsmith received a standing ovation from the crowd as he rose, with assistance, from his wheelchair and walked to the mound. He then threw the game's ceremonial first pitch to Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira.

At Boston's Fenway Park, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling made his first visit to the ballpark since formally announcing his retirement in March. A strong supporter of care for ALS patients and a fan of the Hall of Fame first baseman -- the right-hander named his son Gehrig -- Schilling paid his respects by reciting an excerpt from Gehrig's address.

In Washington, the Nationals had former Virginia governor George Allen read the speech for the Nationals Park crowd.

The Cubs invited Chicago native and former Cubs pitcher Dave Otto to recite a portion of the speech prior to their game against the Brewers. Otto pitched in the big leagues from 1987-94 and finished his career with the Cubs.

In Kansas City, prior to their game against the White Sox, the Royals celebrated Gehrig's legacy with a special message on the video board. Hall of Famer George Brett -- along with former Royals Dennis Leonard, Willie Wilson and John Wathan -- read portions of Gehrig's speech. In addition, the Royals hosted patients and families who have been affected by ALS.

In Cincinnati, the Reds introduced representatives from the ALS Association, ALS Therapy Development Institute, MDA Augie's Quest and Project A.L.S. on the field before their game against the Cardinals. Their honorary captain for the day was Lynn Stewart, a U.S. Navy veteran diagnosed with ALS in 2007.

The Twins had former first baseman Kent Hrbek, whose career began just four months after his father was diagnosed with ALS, deliver a reading of Gehrig's words before they hosted the Tigers. Hrbek began his career at first base with the Yankees, just like Gehrig, and lost his father to ALS during his rookie year in 1982.

In Colorado, the Rockies honored several representatives of various ALS associations in a pregame ceremony before they hosted the D-backs. During the seventh-inning stretch, Howard Weese, who worked as a club-level supervisor at Coors Field and in various capacities at the club's Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, Ariz., during Spring Training, read an abbreviated version of Gehrig's famous speech. Weese was diagnosed with ALS this spring, but he has stayed close to the Rockies organization.

The Rangers, prior to their game against the Rays, had former first baseman Pete O'Brien, who lost his father to ALS in 1986, recite part of Gehrig's speech.

In Cleveland, the Indians had representatives from three ALS organizations on hand for Saturday's game against the A's. Among them were Fred Mourey, a local high school sports announcer and commentator who is dealing with ALS, Gary Twardzik, whose best friend Chad Blooming lost his battle with ALS in May 2007, and Brian Webb, who has a fellow firefighter at Cleveland Fire/Local 93 living with ALS.

In Miami, former Marlins star Jeff Conine recreated part of Gehrig's speech before the game against the Pirates. Conine, who played 1,002 games at first base, grew up idolizing Gehrig.

The Phillies had catcher Chris Coste read Gehrig's speech before they hosted the Mets. Also, outfielder Shane Victorino received the Phi Delta Theta Lou Gehrig Award presented to an athlete who personifies what it means to value his role both on and off the field.

In San Francisco, before the Giants hosted the Astros, Corey Reich, an ALS patient from Piedmont, Calif., was honored in a ceremony.

Before the Padres faced the Dodgers in San Diego, four local charities were honored for their work in trying to find a cure for ALS. Additionally, during the game, the Padres recreated Gehrig's speech featuring lines recited by Bud Black, Tony Gwynn Jr., Chase Headley, Jake Peavy, Chris Young and broadcaster Jerry Coleman.

In Anaheim, before the Angels hosted the Orioles, American Idol finalist Michael Johns sang the national anthem. Johns, an avid supporter of ALS research, has been involved in several organizations to help the fight against ALS.

While Saturday's games are over, there still is an opportunity to contribute and learn.

The authenticated first-base bags from the 15 games, signed by each contest's respective first basemen, will be auctioned off on MLB.com in an effort to continue the fund-raising effort for ALS.

For more information, fans can join MLB.com's online community. Representatives of the four organizations working with MLB, along with others whose lives have been affected by the disease, are available there to network and share stories and information.

Lisa Winston and Rhett Bollingerare reporters for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.