What Lou Gehrig Can Teach Us About Rhetorical Claims


Lou Gehrig in Columbia uniform, 1921

Lou Gehrig in Columbia uniform, 1921 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lou Gehrig (1903-1941), one of the greatest Yankee baseball players in history, had a great career.  He was called the “Iron Horse” because he held a 2,130 consecutive games played streak before retiring in 1939 due to being diagnosed with ALS.  His batting average was .340 and he still holds two of the greatest RBI records in baseball history.

It is no wonder the fans felt sorrow on the day of his retirement, the day he gave the following famous speech:

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 seventeen 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? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that 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 remember you with trophies – that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own 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 a 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. (Sports Illustrated)

When discussing rhetoric, we must realize that all speakers, all writers, use four basic claims when building an argument.  These claims are:

1.  A claim of definition: Defines the terms of the argument and the terminology of the point of view of the writer.

2.  A claim of value: Illustrates how the speaker feels about the topic, mostly as to whether they feel it is right or wrong.

3.  A claim of cause: Describes the cause and effect of the issue or defined term.

4.  A claim of policy: Explains a course of action that must be taken after defending the other claims.

Gehrig, in this completely improvised speech, accomplishes all four of these claims in order to reassure fans of his feelings about contracting ALS and how they should react.

Gehrig’s claims:

1.  Claim of Definition: Gehrig defines his illness for fans by playing down the disease.  Not once does he mention ALS, discuss his symptoms or mention its fatal nature.  He calls it the “bad break I got”, which in the language of an athlete is defining ALS.

2.  Claim of Value: He calls his long career, cut short by the illness, “lucky”.  He pulls us into the ethos of the argument, which is the idea that even though his career is now over, he was simply glad to have the chance to play with such “grand men”.

3.  Claim of Cause: He discusses all the gifts given to him by “the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat”, and goes on to discuss all the good that has come from the announcement of his illness and all the kindness that was shown (Babe Ruth even ended his long rivalry with Gehrig) which was caused by all of the outpouring of emotion.  His illness has caused people to become closer who would normally be rivals.

4.  Claim of Policy: In the end, Gehrig says he “has an awful lot to live for”, which could be the love of the fans, the love of his wife or the love of the game, but it leaves fans with the idea that they are a part of his success, that his legacy will live on, and that indeed he is the “luckiest” man on the face of the earth.

All great arguments must have these four elements in order for them to be persuasive.  If this humble baseball player could offer such an argument on the spot without preparation, how much better could our essays be if we have all the time in the world to prepare them.

It takes more than luck.  It takes hard work.

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