By Mark E. Smith
While writing a medical article about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), I was intrigued by the story of Lou Gehrig. Although “Lou Gehrig’s disease” is a synonym for ALS, little is discussed in literature in a linear form about how the most famous person with ALS actually dealt with the condition. In extracting parts of Gehrig’s experience from many sources, bit by bit, I saw an amazing story unfold, one with a profound lesson for many of us.
In 1923, Lou Gehrig joined the New York Yankees, soon taking his spot as first baseman. By the 1930s, he set an all-time record, playing in 2,130 consecutive games, a record unbroken by another player until 1995. In the 1930s, Gehrig, alongside longtime teammate, Babe Ruth, became a homerun champion, as well. However, in 1938 everything changed for the baseball legend.
In the 1938 season, Gehrig had his first seasonal slump. Based on the 1937 season, he was still going strong, even in his mid-30s, but his performance was suddenly amiss. What’s more, Gehrig felt it was more than just an unlucky season. He struggled not only on the field, but with tasks as simple as tying his shoes.
By April of 1939, during spring training, even the press became concerned. Sports journalist, James Kahn, wrote:
I think there is something wrong with [Gehrig]. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing. I have seen ballplayers ‘go’ overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done. But they were simply washed up as ballplayers. It’s something deeper than that in this case, though. I have watched him very closely and this is what I have seen: I have seen him time a ball perfectly, swing on it as hard as he can, meet it squarely—and drive a soft, looping fly over the infield. In other words, for some reason that I do not know, his old power isn’t there… He is meeting the ball, time after time, and it isn’t going anywhere.
On May 2, 1939, Gehrig ended his consecutive-games record by pulling himself from the lineup. Six weeks later, on June 13, he checked into the Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed in the following days with ALS, a degenerative muscle disease, fatal within two to five years. He was 36.
Although contrary to the actual diagnosis given, Gehrig’s initial reaction was expressed in a letter to his wife: “There is a 50–50 chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years. Playing is out of the question.”
On July 4, 1939, with the news of Gehrig’s illness filling newspapers, he returned to Yankee Stadium to retire, giving his “luckiest man alive” speech. There’s little record of the speech, but the following pieced-together excerpt shows Gehrig’s disposition:
For the past two weeks you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…. When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? …I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.
One might think that upon retirement from baseball, with such a grim health prognosis, Gehrig would have settled into a quiet life. However, in keeping with his show-up-and-play nature, he took a civics job as a New York Parole Commissioner in January, 1940, maintaining a very low profile as he worked with prison inmates, where he believed in rehabilitation.
By 1941, while Gehrig worked as a Parole Commissioner, his condition dramatically declined. His wife, Eleanor, was his constant companion, helping him perform his duties. In May of 1941, Gehrig resigned his position due to ever-deteriorating health.
On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig died of ALS at 10:10 p.m., at his home in the Bronx.
While many remember Gehrig for his Hall of Fame baseball accomplishments, his ultimate legacy may be a single quote that he left us with that applies so well to all facing such harrowing adversity: “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present. …I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”