At home with the Upper East Side's Lou Gehrig expert, on the anniversary of the famous speech
Every year around the 4th of July, the phone in Ray Robinson's Upper East Side apartment, where he has lived for the past 57 years, starts to ring again.
Though it's been nearly a quarter century since the publication of "Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time," Robinson's definitive biography, the anniversary of Gehrig's "Luckiest Man" speech, delivered on Independence Day in 1939, inevitably brings Robinson back into the limelight. This year marked the 75th anniversary of the speech, creating a particular celebrity moment for Robinson, a crisp 93-year-old who, before the Gehrig book, spent most of his journalism career as an editor at women's magazines.
The Daily News sent a reporter to interview him last week, as did Newsday. Bob Costas, a friend of Robinson's, came by the apartment to interview him for a Gehrig special on the MLB Network. Though the Yankees held a special commemoration ceremony for Gehrig this year-every first baseman in the league read a line from the speech ? Robinson had to skip it because of a persistently painful toothache.
Does it bother Robinson that it's now looking like his own legacy will forever be tied to the baseball player he first watched at the age of two? "Not a bit," he said. "He's remained my hero."
Robinson's ties to Gehrig long predated the book. First there was that toddler outing, when his father took him to watch Gehrig hit balls on South Field at Columbia, near the Robinson home at 115th Street and Broadway. Gehrig was attending Columbia and Robinson's father, a lawyer, was an alum. "Everyone had heard about this young guy Gehrig, who seemed to have muscles on his ears," he said.
Then, at the age of nine, Robinson and a pal of his at P.S. 165 wrote to Gehrig requesting an interview "for our nonexistent school newspaper." Amazingly, Gehrig wrote back, telling the boys to come to the stadium for the interview, using the letter he had written as their entry pass. (Today, Robinson still marvels at Gehrig's penmanship, which was being taught in public school at the time and which, he said, was unusually tidy.)
The cops at the stadium didn't buy it, though, and the pair waited outside of the players' entrance for five hours, to no avail. At the end of the game, Gehrig finally did emerge, saw the boys, told them he felt terrible for their wait, and promised he would do the interview if they returned. He gave them two crumpled ticket stubs and told them to come back.
"He could not have been nicer," said Robinson, who laments that neither the stubs nor Gehrig's original letter survived his adolescence.
They didn't return, and a few years later, Robinson found himself in the 50-cent seats on July 4, 1939, for what was billed as Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. The Yankees star was obviously ailing, but had managed to keep the extent of his illness a secret to all but his family and a very close circle of friends and fellow players. Gehrig was slated to be honored following a double-header with Washington. Following a number of other speeches, a hesitant and clearly emotional Gehrig took a breath, then approached a bank of microphones.
"Fans," he began, "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."
Gehrig went on to thank his manager, his teammates, his mother-in-law, and his wife, "who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed ? So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."
Gehrig died two years later, in his home in Riverdale. The speech, though, lived on as one of the greatest sporting moments in the nation, a pivot point for a country emerging from a Great Depression, but about to enter a horrific war.
In the years that would follow, many of Robinson's friends and Columbia classmates would die in World War II (he avoided combat because of lousy vision) and he would bail on law school to pursue a career in journalism. After trying his hand as a Broadway publicist (he repped the hit show "Hellzapoppin," for instance) and hating it, he became a magazine executive, raised three kids with his wife, Phyllis, then started a second career at the age of 65 as a book, magazine and newspaper writer. He's continued to write regularly for the Times as a freelancer, and contributes often to the magazine published by the baseball Hall of Fame. He's also a member of the board of the New York chapter of the ALS Foundation, raising money to help people stricken by the illness that would become known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. His apartment on E. 90th Street overlooks the ball fields of Asphalt Green (the sound of children playing outside his window is "a noise I love") and is stuffed with books and photos from a vivid life that remains very much in motion. One hallway features framed pictures of him with President Kennedy, at a Fidel Castro speech, on the beach with Phyllis, reading a newpaper and smoking a cigar. (In the day, Robinson could easily have passed for Paul Newman.)
He types everything he writes on manual typewriters that Gay Talese helps him keep supplied with ribbon. His coffee table is weighed down with books by friends (George Vescey of the Times, for instance) and by those he admires (the financial journalist Michael Lewis, who shares his publisher.)
Asked if he's got another book in him, as he approaches his 94th birthday, Robinson sighs and looks toward his beloved wife, the beauty in the bathing suit in the old photos, who now suffers from a long illness and whose care has consumed him in recent years.
"Under these conditions, I can't do it," he said. "I've lost my heart for it."
Then he's out of his easy chair, and into his study, where he pulls the cover off his Olivetti typewriter and plans a trip downtown to see the writer Pete Hamill, an old friend. "The world just doesn't stop, does it?"