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Volume 2, Issue 4
Winter 2006:

Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig

Review by: Richard Ratzan

Cell 2 Soul. 2006 Winter; 2(4):a16

Simon & Schuster (2005); 432 pages; ISBN: 0743245911

Luckiest Man

Who was Lou Gehrig? Sure, he was a famous baseball player and most of us know that he played on the Yankees, about the time of Babe Ruth. But why was he so special? Was he a hitter? A fielder par excellence? And why has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis become known as "Lou Gehrig's disease", as though no one else ever had it? Why have the two maintained such an intimate association? Was there anything particularly ironic or poignant in the eponymous relationship? What kind of man was Lou Gehrig and did his character have anything to do with his name becoming inextricably linked — beginning during his own brief lifetime after contracting the disease at age 35 - with the insidious and progressive neurodegenerative disease that Charcot first called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1874 — with Lou Gehrig?

Jonathan Eig, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, but not heretofore known as a sports writer, has answered all these questions with verve and accuracy and flair - and meticulous researching, including Gehrig's letters, which are a window on certainly one of the most decent sportsmen our country has ever known. In an era when steroids; and hype; multimillion dollar contracts; multiply-failed drug rehab programs for essentially spoiled adolescent sports "superstars"; and the idolization of athletes who can barely manage a compound-complex sentence - these are all sad commonplaces. When such phenomena dominate the news, one reads this book about a man who epitomized athletic ability cum decency with zest and not a little chagrin about the state of affairs called U.S. sports.

Born to German immigrants in 1903, Henry Louis Gehrig (his father Heinrich changed his surname from Gehrich to Gehrig in the 1870's) was the sole survivor of several Gehrig children who did not make it to adulthood. His mother, Christina, the stalwart and only reliable bread-winner of the family, raised Lou with the attention one gives to the brood's likeliest descendant. This mother-son relationship became the strongest bond in Gehrig's life until he met his wife, Eleanor, another female source of leadership for Lou. When other men were bringing wives to Spring training camp, in 1926 Lou Gehrig brought his mother. In fact, he lived at home well into Yankee stardom. Eig relates Gehrig's life with careful attention to the historical milieu. One is always aware of the introduction of radio, night games, television, and the profound effect the Depression had on everyone except, paradoxically, Major League baseball players.

Eig chronicles Gehrig's playing days, including the early heady days when major league baseball truly became major league, with an even tempo. If you do not like baseball, you will still enjoy this section, which is approximately the first two thirds of the book. The author constantly paints Gehrig the man against the background of other baseball players, management (he was by nature a team player and an obedient employee for whom "holdout" then remained an unknown word) and the always troublesome marriage with the press. Despite his intense shyness, Gehrig eventually became a well respected member of his team and idolized by the public, who knew he was not Babe Ruth, but who came to appreciate him for the Iron Horse of steady work habits, consistently excellent and bravura performance and even-tempered disposition that he was.

When Gehrig began his career with the Yankees in 1923, Babe Ruth was the dominant player in baseball, earning $70,000 in 1927 when most players were earning less than $10,000. Gehrig's salary at his peak, 11 years later, was $39,000. As colorful, apparently, as one's vaguely colorful memories of him, Babe Ruth makes an early appearance and then returns for occasional cameos. Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane, Connie Mack, Joe Dimaggio — all play ball in this story. All had tremendous respect for the sheer power Lou Gehrig exerted on and off the field. Gehrig was an amazingly reliable hitter of great power and equally consistent clutch hitter. One is reminded of Satchel Paiges's legendary comment when, as a youngster, he replied to the question of an astounded coach who had just watched him pitch many strike-outs to himself and Satchel's brother, "Satchel, do pitch this consistently?": "No sir," the adolescent Satchel replied, "I pitch this way all the time."

On the field, Gehrig's power derived from a massive physique of broad shoulders resting atop even more sturdy legs, so sturdy and muscular, in fact, they cost Gehrig the Hollywood part of Tarzan after Johnnie Weissmuller gave up the part! Gehrig was famous for drilling line drive homers that shattered signs and parts of the ball field, whereas Ruth lofted them with his patented upper-cut swing. It is in part for this reason that the reader reads with sorrow as the former human colossus of muscle wastes away in front of his teammates and fans and the national audience in the 1938 season when it appeared he was in a slump. (One reflects with irony and certainty that with today's televised everything athletic that at least 100 neurologist-fans would have inundated the Yankee management with correct diagnosis of ALS after only a few games into the 1938 season!) After reading this portion of the book, the reader has difficulty reading in detail the events of the tragic 1939 season when it seemed any schoolboy should have known this man and incredible competitor was indeed sick.

Off the field, Gehrig's power emanated from a decency and down-to-earth modesty that he inherited from his hard-working mother. When he could have negotiated with Jake Ruppert, the Yankees' legendarily tight-fisted owner, for what should have been one of the highest salaries in baseball, he didn't - until Babe Ruth and ultimately his wife, Eleanor, persuaded him to bargain for his worth. When criticized for keeping up his streak at the expense of his health (this was long before ALS reared its ugly head and, incidentally, a criticism Carl Ripken, Jr., often heard as well) and his team's prospects, he replied, " 'I can't see why anyone should attack my record,' 'I have never belittled anyone else's. I intend to play every day and shall continue to give my best to my employers and the fans. What about the guy who pays $1.10 to see the game? What if I sit on the bench and say I'm resting?' " (page 252)

Perhaps the final brick in the edifice of Lou Gehrig's solid work ethic, modesty, unassuming team spirit and humility, is his departure speech delivered on July 4, 1939, 66 years ago to the day that I am writing this. A copy of it from a NY Yankees url is appended, along with a url from the History Channel with a snippet of the speech, allegedly in Gehrig's own voice. Since the speech was given impromptu without a manuscript copy and was so brief, the various versions extant represent the best guess reconstruction.

The final 100 pages deal with Gehrig's contracting ALS, diagnosis and therapy. They seem, in retrospect, only about 10. One wishes for more. There probably is more but the author states that the medical records at the Mayo Clinic, where Gehrig first went in June of 1939, are "permanently sealed despite frequent requests by doctors and journalists to have them opened." (page 303) At the Mayo, Gehrig sees first Harold C. Habein, a physician often given the first shot at the celebrity patient. Habein knew immediately that Gehrig had ALS, according to his unpublished memoirs. Next Gehrig had the diagnosis confirmed by Henry W. Woltman, a milquetoast of a man but apparently a neurologist's neurologist. Finally, Gehrig met and befriended, as he did not Habein or Woltman, Dr. Paul O'Leary, a charismatic dermatologist and syphilologist who remained a close correspondent and friend of Gehrig, albeit a more optimistic than realistic or truthful advisor. Eig quotes repeatedly from Gehrig's letters begging O'Leary for the truth, realistic prognosis, and accurate assessment of his progress or lack thereof. These were, however, the paternalistic heydays of medicine, unfortunately. O'Leary never complied. As Eig writes, "O'Leary, faced with a difficult choice, behaved more as a good friend than as a good doctor. He offered Gehrig hope." (page 323) After reading this book, one realizes the irony and tragedy of such a natural and hard working athlete of power succumbing to ALS and why the two became inseparable.

Lou Gehrig died June 2, 1941, quietly at home with his wife present. A relatively unknown disease at the time, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, as the official name of the disease soon became. There was then, as there is now, no definitive etiology or cure. Gehrig's consecutive game streak of 2130 games, part of the reason for his nickname Iron Horse, was only broken recently, in 1995, by Cal Ripken, Jr., of the Baltimore Orioles.

This book does not devote much attention to the pathophysiology of ALS, for which one should turn to His Brother's Keeper, by Jonathan Weiner, which also makes for an interesting comparison between two quite different patients in different decades of the 19th century.
 

Appendix:

NY Yankees text, reconstructed:

Lou Gehrig's 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."

History Channel Excerpt

Click here to listen

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