For the last few weeks in August, those of us in the States have been bombarded with images of common folks and celebrities pouring buckets of ice water over their heads in the name of fundraiser for ALS. But what exactly is ALS and why do some people refer to the condition as Lou Gehrig’s Disease?
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.
Henry Louis “Lou” or “Buster” Gehrig (June 19, 1903 – June 2, 1941) was an American baseball first baseman who played 17 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB) for the New York Yankees (1923–1939). Gehrig was renowned for his prowess as a hitter and for his durability, a trait which earned him his nickname “The Iron Horse.” He finished with a career batting average of .340, an on-base percentage of .447, and a slugging percentage of .632, and he tallied 493 home runs and 1,995 runs batted in (RBIs). A seven-time All-Star and six-time World Series champion, Gehrig won the Triple Crown in 1934 and was twice named the American League’s (AL) Most Valuable Player. Gehrig was the first MLB player to have his uniform number retired, and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive major league games [a record finally broken by Cal Ripken, Jr., in 1995] over a span of 15 Yankee seasons.
Lou Gehrig, the “Pride of the Yankees,” contracted the disease in 1938. He was dead by 2 June 1941. The fans wondered when Gehrig’s streaks would end. No one thought to see the Iron Horse brought low, but ALS did that to the baseball great. On 4 July 1939, a heartfelt farewell was given to Gehrig. The scene from The Pride of the Yankees, with Gary Cooper portraying the venerable Gehrig, leaves viewers clutching their handkerchiefs.
Gehrig first garnered national attention for his baseball ability while playing in a game at Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field) on June 26, 1920. Gehrig’s New York School of Commerce team was playing a team from Chicago’s Lane Tech High School, in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 spectators. With his team winning 8–6 in the top of the ninth inning, Gehrig hit a grand slam completely out of the major league park, an unheard-of feat for a 17-year old.
Gehrig began his professional baseball career on a bit of a “fluke.” As a student at Columbia University and a member of the Columbia collegiate team, he moonlighted with the New York Giants Class A team in Hartford, Connecticut. He played under an assumed name [Henry Lewis]. When the ploy was discovered, he was made to choose between college and the pros. After only a dozen games played for the Hartford Senators in the Eastern League, he was banned from collegiate sports his freshman year. In 1922, Gehrig returned to the collegiate sport atmosphere where he was a talented fullback for the Lions football program. Later, in 1923, he would play first base and pitch for Columbia.
On April 18, 1923, the same day Yankee Stadium opened for the first time and Babe Ruth inaugurated the new stadium with a home run, Columbia pitcher Gehrig struck out seventeen Williams College batters to set a team record; however, Columbia lost the game. Only a handful of collegians were at South Field that day, but more significant was the presence of Yankee scout Paul Krichell, who had been trailing Gehrig for some time. It was not Gehrig’s pitching that particularly impressed him; rather, it was Gehrig’s powerful left-handed hitting. During the time Krichell had been observing the young Columbia ballplayer, Gehrig had hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on various Eastern campuses, including a 450-foot (137 m) home run on April 28 at Columbia’s South Field, which landed at 116th Street and Broadway. Within two months, Gehrig signed a Yankee contract. He returned to minor-league Hartford to play parts of two seasons, 1923 and 1924, batting .344 and hitting 61 home runs in 193 games. (It was the only time Gehrig ever played any level of ball—sandlot, high school, collegiate or pro—for a team based outside New York City.)
On 2 June 1925, Yankee’s long-time first baseman, Wally Pipp, complained of a headache. Pipp later said he had taken “the two most expensive aspirin in history.” Gehrig had replaced Pipp for the game and for the next fourteen years, he was a staple in the Yankee lineup, although he often played in Babe Ruth’s shadow.
There was a Yankee double-header with the Washington Senators on the day Gehrig was to bid a permanent farewell to his baseball career. It was Gehrig’s final day in a Yankee uniform and two months after his last game. A weakened Gehrig tucked his Yankee hat under his arm and stared dejectedly at home plate. Tears streamed down his cheeks at the heart-felt sympathy from the fans.
Ed Barrow, president of the Yankees, draped an arm around Gehrig’s shoulders to provide the baseball hero his support. Members of the 1927 legendary Yankee team, including Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Herb Pennock, Joe Dugan, George Pipgras, and Waite Hoyt, stood nearby in tribute to Gehrig, as Gehrig had been part of the World Series-winning team. Gehrig leaned on Barrow as he was presented gifts from his Yankee teammates and stadium employees.
Joe McCarthy, the Yankee’s manager, embraced Gehrig after saying over the microphone, “Lou, it is a sad day in the life of everyone who knew you when you told me you were quitting because you felt you were a hindrance to the team. My God, Man, you were never that.”
Initially, Sid Mercer (the master of ceremonies) told the crowd he would not ask Gehrig to speak, but as the grounds keepers removed the microphones, Gehrig motioned to the spectators that he would answer their cries of “We want Lou!” Gehrig raised his hand and offered those in attendance a weak smile. He stepped to the one remaining microphone and delivered the greatest farewell speech ever. “For weeks, I have reading in the newspapers that I am a fellow who got a tough break. I don’t believe it. Today I consider myself the luckiest man alive. For 16 years, in every ball park into which I ever walked, I received kindness and encouragement. Mine has been a full life.” Gehrig then thanked everyone with whom he had ever worked, including players, the team owner, etc., as well as those who worked at the ball park. He thanked Bill Dickey, who was his roommate when on the road, his German immigrant parents [Heinrich and Christina Gehrig], and his wife Eleanor.
He died at age 37, sixteen years to the day after Gehrig replaced Pipp in the Yankee lineup.