By Dan Schlossberg
Lou Gehrig was just 37 when he died from amyothropic lateral sclerosis (ALS) on June 2, 1941. Major League Baseball will salute his legacy before every game played today.
It’s not a milestone anniversary — 82 years have passed — but Gehrig, like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, deserves to be remembered, if not saluted.
He simply had more integrity, durability, and devotion to the game than anyone else — with the possible exception of Gehrig contemporary Hank Greenberg. Both were Hall of Fame first basemen in more ways than one but Gehrig has the misfortune of illness ending his career and his life ridiculously prematurely.
Gehrig actually died on the same month and day that he started his consecutive games playing streak in 1923. He played exclusively for the New York Yankees, for whom he won a Triple Crown, hit for the cycle, smashed four home runs in a game, and served as team captain.
The disease that killed him is a degenerative disorder that causes victims to lose motor skills, eroding their ability to walk, talk, eat, or breathe. There is no proven cure, though medical researchers in Israel seem close to discovering one.
BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, an Israeli bio-med company conducting Phase II clinical trials on ALS patients, claims that some patients treated with a cell therapy called NurOwn have shown dramatic improvement – even walking and talking after the malady had stopped those functions.
Like Gehrig, Senator Jacob Javits, and actor David Niven, most ALS patients die 2-5 years after symptoms begin. Only four per cent last longer than 10 years. The United States has an estimated 25,000 ALS patients.
“Lou Gehrig Day” is designed to raise awareness of ALS and funds for finding a definitive cure. Players will wear red patches and wristbands and individual clubs will mark the day in their home ballparks.
Active players Stephen Piscotty (Athletics) and Sam Hilliard (Braves) have personal connections to the disorder. The former lost his mother to the insidious disease in 2018, the same year the latter learned his father had contracted it. Mike Piscotty, Stephen’s father, is president of the ALS Cure Project and a Lou Gehrig Day committee member.
According to Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, “While ALS has been closely identified with our game since Lou’s legendary carer, the pressing need to find a cure remains. We look forward to honoring all the individuals and families, in baseball and beyond, who have been affected by ALS and hope Lou Gehrig Day advances efforts to defeat this disease.”
Gehrig’s name has lived on through the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, created in 1955 by Phi Delta Theta, his Columbia University fraternity. It goes annually to the player who best exemplifies the character of the long-time Yankees legend.
Gehrig was one of the game’s brightest stars when he was diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic. On July 4, 1939, when the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium, he gave a speech that was even more memorable than his Hall of Fame career.
“For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break,” he told 61,808 teary fans at the celebrated Bronx ballpark. “Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
His gifts that day included a fishing rod and tackle from his teammates, candlesticks from the New York Giants, and a trophy from the Yankees featuring an eagle on top of a baseball. He even got a DON’T QUIT placard from the visiting Washington Senators.
A Bronx native who spent two years at Columbia before going directly to the Yankees in 1923 – the same year the stadium opened – Gehrig never made much money playing baseball. He got a signing bonus of $1,500 and had a peak salary of $39,000 a year.
Still, he played his heart out. Humble and low-key, especially when contrasted with bombastic teammate Babe Ruth, he produced 493 home runs, 1,995 runs batted in, and 1,888 runs scored on a .340 batting average. Only Ruth and Ted Williams topped his 1.080 lifetime OPS.
The soft-spoken first baseman played in 2,130 consecutive games -– ignoring broken fingers, lumbago, and multiple other aches and pains –- and hit .361 in seven World Series. Gehrig had 185 runs batted in, still an American League record, in 1931 and more than 150 RBI in six other seasons. He even knocked in 500 runs over a three-year span.
Only ALS stopped him.
“It’s a miracle he played at all in 1938,” says Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: the Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. “I think it’s the greatest achievement in the history of baseball. He had symptoms of ALS throughout the season but still hit .295 with 29 home runs and 114 runs batted in even though his muscles were melting away game by game.”
The first major-leaguer whose number was retired, Gehrig wore No. 4 because he batted fourth, following Ruth in the lineup of a team known as “Murderer’s Row.” His pictures and quotations are all over the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Yankees Museum, the Yogi Berra Museum, and Monument Park.
Modest to a fault, he once said, “I’m just the guy who’s in there every day, the fellow who follows Babe in the batting order. Whether he strikes out or hits a home run, the fans are still talking about him when I come up. If I stood on my head at the plate, nobody would pay any attention.”
Quiet and dignified, Gehrig had to be coaxed to the microphone on the day of his “luckiest man” speech.
“When he gave that speech, it was the first time many of the people in the ballpark heard him speak,” says Pinstripe Empire author Marty Appel. “Radio interviews were not that frequent so people in the ballpark did not realize he had such a strong New York accent.
“He didn’t need the support of Babe Ruth to be a great player – his performance on the field spoke for itself. His speech was a baseball moment that had nothing to do with playing. It was baseball’s Gettysburg Address.”
The record for consecutive games played eventually went to Cal Ripken Jr., who had the benefit of work stoppages that gave me occasional breathers. The night he passed Gehrig, Ripken told the gathered Baltimore fans, “Tonight I stand here, overwhelmed, as my name is linked with the great and courageous Lou Gehrig. I’m truly humbled to have our names spoken in the same breath.”
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ grew up in Passaic, went to Syracuse, and wrote more than 40 baseball books. E.mail him at email@example.com.