New York City Gets Epic for July 4th

Lou Gehrig at Yankees Stadium, July 4, 1939. Image courtesy of MLB, colorization by Graig Kreindler.

Lou Gehrig at Yankees Stadium, July 4, 1939. Image courtesy of MLB, colorization by Graig Kreindler.

I could have posted this yesterday, but I assumed, hopefully correctly, that people would have better things to do on a sunny holiday Saturday than read blogs. For my part, I designed and triumphed in a Game of Thrones-themed pong. (As Littlefinger, I allied with the Lannisters and we retained control of the Iron Throne.)

New York City has seen its share of memorable July 4ths. On July 4, 1817, the New York State legislature finally banned slavery in the state. Effective 1827. This law superseded an earlier compromise attempt at phasing out slavery passed in 1799. Like most compromise bills, the endless loopholes, demand for slave-labor in farming areas like Brooklyn, and mercantile interests in the slave trade meant that the 1799 bill was not having its desired effect. The 1817 bill ended slavery once and for all – again, in ten years time, so that slave-owners could “recoup on their investments.”

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Forty years later, the streets of the city were filled with blood when two of its most fearsome gangs, the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits, battled across downtown Manhattan in a sprawling, vicious brawl. The Bowery Boys were a nativist, anti-Irish group led by “Bill the Butcher” Poole, and the Dead Rabbits were a largely Irish squad from the Five Points. The storyline behind this battle was depicted in Martin Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York.  Adding a further wrinkle of mayhem was the involvement of the police, on both sides! As I’ve written about previously, during the summer of 1857 New York City actually had two competing police forces, the Municipal Police, controlled by Mayor Fernando Wood, and the Metropolitan Police, loyal to the state legislature. The Dead Rabbits and Municipal Police fought side by side against the Bowery Boys and their political allies, the Metropolitan Police. Talk about New York’s bad old days!

On a bittersweet note, on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig announced his retirement from baseball in a heartfelt address to a packed Yankees Stadium crowd. Gehrig, a local Manhattan boy made good, was one of baseball’s most fearsome hitters throughout the 1920s and 1930s, winning two Most Valuable Player awards and playing first base for six World Series championships. For the baseball fans out there, consider that he topped 150 RBIs in a season seven times, once driving in 185 runs. He also set a record for consecutive games played that stood for decades until it was topped by Cal Ripken, Jr. Unfortunately, in 1938 Gehrig contacted ALS, and by the spring of 1939 he was having difficulty with his coordination. He took himself out of the lineup at the end of April, and though he captained the rest of the season, he never played again.  On July 4, 1939, the Yankees held “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, where he tearfully told the crowd that despite his illness, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the face of the Earth.” He was elected to the Hall of Fame that year, and passed away in 1941. Gehrig’s passing raised awareness about ALS, then a little-understood disease. (More recently, ALS was in the news through the wildly successful “ice bucket challenge.”)

I hope you also had an epic 4th of July, and enjoy the rest of the weekend.

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