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7/2/2014 2:03 P.M. ET

Yankees honor Gehrig's words, opening MLB initiative

Concerted effort for ALS awareness begins as 75th anniversary of speech remembered

NEW YORK -- The Yankees opened Major League Baseball's league-wide effort to spread awareness and raise research funds for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, prior to Wednesday's game against the Rays at Yankee Stadium.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Gehrig's iconic "Luckiest Man" speech between games of a doubleheader against Washington at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when he announced the disease would force him to retire.

Yankee Stadium featured the number "4" down the first- and third-base lines, in honor of Gehrig's number (he is the only Yankee to ever wear it) and the date he gave his speech. The first 18,000 fans in attendance for Wednesday's game received a Gehrig bobblehead, the Yankees wore special patches on their uniforms and a scoreboard video package featuring Derek Jeter and first basemen, like Gehrig, from all 30 teams reciting Gehrig's speech was presented.

The Yankees also hosted a pregame on-field ceremony to honor those affected by ALS, including: Kevin Brown Thompson, who lives with ALS and is an advocate with the ALS Association Greater New York Chapter; the Goldsmith family, which was part of the 70th anniversary Gehrig commemoration at Yankee Stadium and who mourn the loss of Michael Goldsmith to ALS (Goldsmith spearheaded the effort to get MLB to recognize this day league-wide); and U.S. Navy Lt. Commander (Select) Matthew Bellina, who was diagnosed with ALS in April of this year.

"It means so much to us," said Dorine Gordon, the president and CEO of the ALS Association Greater New York Chapter. "It certainly raises the profile of our cause, because Lou Gehrig is synonymous with the Yankees, and it really means a lot to us in terms of raising awareness. And, of course, Lou Gehrig was such a great role model for so many both on and off the field. It's been an inspiration to some of our patients."

An estimated 30,000 people in the U.S. have ALS at any given time, and there is no cure. Gordon said her organization helps patients in the New York area with treatment clinics and equipment, such as wheelchairs.

The rest of baseball will honor Gehrig on Friday, when the Yankees will be facing the Twins in Minnesota. The Yanks and Twins worked together in planning the pregame ceremony, so the same giveaway will be available Friday at Target Field.

"Days like today raise the public awareness, encourage people to donate, and we're able to provide these services free of charge," Gordon said.

Jamal Collier is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.