In Derek Jeter’s announcement in February of this year of his retirement from baseball, he expressed gratitude for all who have challenged him, cheered for him, beaten him down and picked him back up. He indicated in his letter that it was “time for the next chapter. I have new dreams and aspirations, and I want new challenges.”
This month marks 75 years since Lou Gehrig delivered his farewell to baseball speech at Yankee Stadium: “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 seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”
Unlike Jeter, there was not a next chapter for Gehrig, and he was dead in less than two years from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Gehrig gave to his fans with his incredible talent: drove in 509 runs in three years with 184 RBIs in a single season in 1931; held the record for the most grand slams in a career; won the triple crown from the American League in 1934; and hit 493 home runs in his career, setting the record for the most hits by any first baseman until Mark McGwire hit 500.
And that’s where the problem arises. I was Chancellor of St. Louis Community College when McGwire “broke” Gehrig’s record, and my office was next door to the Cardinals’ Busch Stadium. We were all excited as we grabbed up special editions of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to send to nephews and sons. I even had the college holiday greeting card that year celebrate McGwire’s success by using a photo of board members, faculty, staff. students, and me on the field at the stadium.
We finally learned about McGwire’s drug use, and many of us were disappointed.
Gehrig’s legacy is a very different story. In spite of the passing of time, when I assign students in my communication classes to analyze one of the top 100 speeches in Twentieth Century America, several students in each class always select Gehrig’s speech. Why has he had such an impact?
Cole Ward, 18, who is playing third base for the Greenville, Ohio, American Legion Team, Post 140 this summer, says, “Gehrig was a great player. He and his teammates played hard all the time. Gehrig had all the tools: he could run and was an amazing hitter. He could basically do everything from the outfield. He was a great example for future players.”
Ward will be attending Indiana Wesleyan this fall on a full academic scholarship, and he will be majoring in interdisciplinary math. His subject for his advanced placement English class this past academic year was entitled “The ‘Roid’ Rage.”
In his research paper, Ward writes, “Players will do anything to beat the guy next to them. In some cases, this even includes cheating.” He quotes Joe Solberg and Richard Ringer from the March 2014 issue of Ethics and Behavior: “Professional athletes, including baseball players, operate within a different culture and with a fundamentally different set of ethical values than society at large. The culture of baseball is one in which ‘winning trumps everything.’”
Additionally, Ward lays some of the blame at the feet of the fans, “In the 1990s the popularity of the game was linked to offensive power. Fans wanted to see more high- scoring games rather than pitching duels. People wanted to go see the sluggers McGwire and Sosa hit bombs over the yard against each other. Long story short, the steroids made more homeruns, and homeruns made the league more money.”
In a culture such as ours, short cuts that violate our values seem to be the norm for some, but we must always stand up and shout, “No!”
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