July 4, America and Baseball Legend Lou Gehrig

by Bill Norman on Mon, 2009-06-01 14:36

July 4 is a date that holds special significance not only for America, but for MDA and Major League Baseball (MLB) as well.

July 4 is the date in 1939 when Lou Gehrig, legendary first baseman and slugger for the New York Yankees, delivered an emotional farewell speech to 62,000 fans in Yankee Stadium, in the New York City borough of the Bronx.

After more than 13 years and 2,130 sequential games played for the Yankees, Gehrig, the “Iron Horse,” called it quits — not because he wanted to, but because he was feeling the paralyzing effects of ALS, the disease that would become known in time as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

Gehrig a tireless worker

ALS plays no favorites in the people it affects; even so, learning that stalwart Lou Gehrig had the disease was a shock to most who knew him. Born of poor German immigrant parents in New York, he was always among the largest and strongest of his classmates.

William Ross' Gehrig painting
A watercolor titled "Pride of the Yankees" is part of the MDA Art Collection. Painted by William Ross, who has ALS, the artwork captures the emotion of the moment when Lou Gehrig gave his farewell address in Yankee Stadium 70 years ago.

Although he eventually rose to fame in major league baseball, Gehrig first attended Columbia University on a football scholarship.

Even when baseball scouts saw Gehrig belting balls incredible distances, he wasn’t an overnight sensation. Author Ray Robinson wrote in his biography Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time (Harper, 1991), “It was always clear that Lou had not come to the major leagues as a born player. He was not a ‘natural’ in any true sense of the word. Only grim determination to succeed, plus his magnificent physique and stamina, had enabled him to make his way with the Yankees.”

Sportswriter Jim Murray called Gehrig “a Gibraltar in cleats.” Another writer described him as looking like a Percheron horse when running between bases. Yet another said he “carried around a body built along the lines of a railroad locomotive.” And his wife Eleanor recalled, “When he got into pro baseball, he was so muscle bound that he almost fell over his own feet.”

Gehrig had lifted weights as a boy and young man, which is how his 6-foot frame eventually came to weigh 200-plus pounds. When he first began playing baseball, fans called him “Buster,” for his batting prowess. Later, he became known as the “Iron Horse” for his endurance and perseverance, even when injured. When he was in his 30s, doctors X-rayed his hands and found 17 different fractures that he had endured while continuing to play.

‘Kind of an adult Eagle Scout’

Eleanor had him pegged. He was, she said, “sensitive, but not demonstrative, a huge but proper wallflower, maybe shy, maybe even square. Kind of an adult Eagle Scout, a 6-footer with strength, stamina and an unreal threshold of pain.”

Robinson wrote in Iron Horse of Gehrig’s “grim commitment” to baseball and noted that, “With chilling foresight [Babe] Ruth said he thought Lou might be hurting himself by forcing his body into Yankee pinstripes day after day.”

Ruth, a Yankees icon, was eight years older than Gehrig, but for several years they shared the stadium spotlight with their magnificent batting prowess. In 1927, when Gehrig was 24, Ruth batted .356 with 60 home runs and 164 runs batted in (RBIs). Gehrig hit .373 with 47 homers and 175 RBIs. In 1934, he won the batting Triple Crown with a .363 average, 49 home runs and 165 RBIs. He was named Most Valuable Player in 1936.

Ruth’s hitting power began to wane with age, and he slowed down as he became increasingly overweight. Gehrig was in his prime, just as rising star Joe DiMaggio, 11 years his junior, joined the Yankees and paired his power with Gehrig, as Gehrig had with Ruth. The Yankees were a sports steamroller.

The first warning signs of ALS

But Gehrig’s heroic performances were about to come to an end. He first began to feel the effects of ALS, even though he didn’t know what his ailment was, in 1938.

At a Yankees game in Detroit, after hitting a single, he stumbled while running to first base. When he bent over to get his breath, he found it took almost superhuman effort to straighten back up. Gehrig dismissed it as a “cold” in his back and was quoted as saying, “I’ll shake it off. That’s what I’ve always done.”

But he was moving slower, and his swings didn’t have their former prodigious power. From his all-time high salary of $39,000, he took a $3,000 cut for his 1938 performance. He said it was just a bad year, and he’d do better in 1939.

In the winter of 1938, Gehrig went ice skating and lost his balance several times, falling to the ice. During spring batting practice in 1939, he missed 19 straight pitches, ones that in earlier times he’d have belted out of the county. In the locker room, he fell down when changing his pants.

The end of a streak

The first game of 1939 was on April 20. Gehrig, in his customary first-base position, appeared to have lost nearly all of his former catching, throwing and hitting abilities. Two weeks later, the Iron Horse’s 2,130-game streak came to an end.

“On that May 2 afternoon,” Robinson wrote, “the Yankee clubhouse … was like a graveyard. …[T]he melancholy grapevine had reached the players. Most of them spoke in whispers as they started to dress for a game they wished would never take place.”

But Gehrig insisted on playing one more time, on June 12 in a game against Kansas City. He lasted until the third inning. When he caught a line drive, it literally knocked him over backward.

Gehrig had been under the care of a New York doctor who was convinced the problem was gallbladder-related and prescribed a bland diet. The day after the Kansas City game, Eleanor arranged for Gehrig to be evaluated at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., by Dr. Charles Mayo himself.

Diagnosis on his birthday

The Mayo Clinic physicians mailed their ALS diagnosis to Eleanor one week later; it arrived on Gehrig’s 36th birthday.

For a while, he continued to suit up and travel with the Yankees, but the end of his team involvement was in sight. When he made his historic July 4 farewell address, it probably came as a shock to many fans, but for Gehrig and those close to him, it must have seemed inevitable.

After Gehrig’s retirement, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally arranged for him to work at a desk job for the city, but it didn’t last long. His voice was growing husky; his hands trembled.

In the final months before his death on June 2, 1941, hundreds of friends, family, top sports figures, people in show business and others came by the Gehrig household almost every night, for dinner and to visit. But eventually, Gehrig took all his meals in his room. He had lost more than 80 pounds and didn’t want to be seen by the public. Every morning a doctor came by and “treated” him with an injection of vitamin E.

Eleanor Gehrig and Jerry Lewis in the 1950s.

When Lou Gehrig died, more than 1,500 telegrams from wellwishers flooded his home. Thousands of fans formed lines more than four blocks long to view his body in state. He and Eleanor (who died in 1984) are buried in Valhalla, N.Y., just a short distance from Babe Ruth’s grave. Soon after his death, Gehrig was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Eleanor, MDA join forces

MDA was formed in 1950 and Gehrig’s widow quickly volunteered to serve as the Association’s national campaign chairman.

The late Robert Ross, MDA’s former president and CEO, worked closely with Eleanor Gehrig in the 50s and 60s. He commented in 2001, “The urgency she [Eleanor] conveyed to me in those early days about the need to defeat ALS is something I feel palpably to this day.”

Since its inception, MDA has spent more than $250 million in ALS research and services. Its programs share Eleanor’s unshakable conviction that ALS must be defeated, and Lou’s “Iron Horse” stamina to see the journey through.

“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 the earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 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 that 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. Thank you.”

Bill Norman
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