-by Jeff Olson
In American sports history, particularly baseball, there is no more revered and respected a name than that of Lou Gehrig. To this day “The Iron Horse” remains an icon of talent, durability and class. His record of 2,130 consecutive games played stood for 56 years and he is still considered the greatest first basemen of all time. However, it was the dignity, grace and character he exemplified both on and off the diamond which endeared him to so many and gave professional sports and America one of its first and perhaps best celebrity role models.
Space does not permit me to expound upon his life and impressive achievements of 16 years with the New York Yankees. What I will share are a few moments out of a full but short life which revealed so much of the man himself who made such a positive difference in the lives of many people, then and since.
In June 1939, at the Mayo Clinic, Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the disease which to this day bears his name. His condition and the prognosis forced him into an early retirement. Eighty years ago this month, July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day was held at Yankee Stadium. Nearly 62,000 fans attended, and thousands listened by radio. When the crowd chanted repeatedly “We want Lou!” and with his manager’s encouragement, he reluctantly and humbly approached the microphones and shared the following: (what many consider one of the great moments in American sports history).
“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 might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”
That same year he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. On June 2, 1941, just 17 days before his 38th birthday Lou Gherig died peacefully. His baseball career was his most notable legacy, but it may not have been his most enduring and consequential one. About 5,000 Americans a year are diagnosed with ALS. Lou Gehrig’s life and death helped unveil this rare and poorly understood disease from obscurity. Many neurologists still have pictures of Gehrig in their offices and examination rooms. When revealing this diagnosis with ALS patients, they often invoke Gehrig’s name and reflect on his valiant response and resolve as much or more than they do on the outcome of the illness.
ALS is a disease which slowly degenerates and weakens the body, but Lou Gehrig’s disease reminds us of a courage, strength and perseverance which transcends the body through the spirit of a man – a great man who has inspired untold tens of thousands over the past 80 years and who will continue to do so until a vaccination and/or cure for this horrible disease is found.