LOU GEHRIG: A PROFILE OF COURAGE AND STRENGTH
Upon speaking into a Yankee Stadium microphone on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig touched countless Americans, not only at that sublime moment, but for generations to come. Of course, that was the day, after being recently diagnosed with a rare and fatal illness that Lou told his audience: "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." After a fabulous fourteen year career, Gehrig had been unable to perform at even a mediocre level early in 1939. Voluntarily taking himself out of the lineup on May 2, after an amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games, Lou subsequently agreed to a comprehensive medical examination at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
The resulting diagnosis was Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, later to be popularly known as "Lou Gehrig’s Disease." Essentially, it was a death sentence, since there was no cure. Yet, when asked to address the devastated Yankee faithful a few weeks later, Lou somehow summoned the dignity and courage to remind his audience of how fortunate he had been in the context of his entire life. Talk about "grace under fire!" But that was Lou Gehrig, always stoic and resolute under any circumstance. How else could he have played in over 2,000 straight games in an era when logistics and medical treatment were medieval compared to today.
Naturally, historians have been analyzing and evaluating Lou’s career for the past seven decades. Also, not surprisingly, there has been a lot of guesswork about exactly when Gehrig was first affected by the disease that killed him. Looking at Gehrig’s Herculean career statistics, we see a lifetime batting average of .340 along with a corresponding slugging percentage of .632. In 1938, he had dropped precipitously to .295 and .523 respectively. Since Lou was only thirty-five that year and always took meticulous care of himself, it is apparent that he was, indeed, suffering from ALS during the ’38 season. Then, how about 1937?
In fact, for the ’37 season, Gehrig posted superior numbers while batting .351, slugging at the rate of .643 and clubbing thirty-seven home runs. So, it seems likely that Lou was medically okay in 1937. Right? Perhaps, but not necessarily. There is another way to look at the vitality of great batsmen: that is to see them through the prism of pure power. In other words, how far did they hit the ball during a certain time period?
In setting standards for great long-distance hitting, the linear distance of 450 feet has often been accepted as the most relevant plateau. Few players, even at the Major League level, can hit a ball that far. It is also a nice round number. Predictably, Lou Gehrig was one of those rare performers who could regularly hit baseballs beyond that distance. His absolute best occurred on May 4, 1929 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, where his soaring blast over the right field roof flew about 510 feet. Yet, by studying all twenty-nine home runs recorded by Lou in 1938, we can determine that none of them flew 450 feet or farther. Again, the performance data indicates that Gehrig was in the clutches of ALS throughout the ’38 season.
So, we refer back to 1937 once more to check Lou’s performance curve. During his first eleven full seasons (1926-1936), he averaged thirty seven homers per year which is exactly how many Gehrig recorded in 1937. Accordingly, that total raises no red flags.
Next, we return to the issue of how far those four-baggers flew through the air. Back in 1936, among Lou’s forty-nine homers, there were three 450-footers, a typical yearly output for Gehrig.
During the entire 1937 season, there were no confirmed 450 foot shots off the bat of the "Iron Horse." He lofted one far over the right field pavilion in St. Louis on June 22, but it is difficult to determine precisely how far it flew. Such exact calculations are not always possible many years after the fact. But, even if that single blow did travel 450 feet, it is still clear that Lou simply didn’t hit the ball as hard and/or far in 1937 as he did in 1936 (and before). On the basis of this single criterion, it appears possible that Gehrig was in the early stages of his downward spiral in ’37.
But, remember those season statistics already referenced. For the entire 1937 campaign, Lou Gehrig accrued a .351 batting average and a .643 slugging percentage which exceeded his career norms. So, what was really going on inside Lou’s body during that pivotal year? In order to try to understand, we must dig deeper. On Sunday, August 1, 1937 at Yankee Stadium, Gehrig hit for the cycle (single, double, triple & home run) while hitting a long fly out on his other at-bat. At that moment, he was batting .382, and was, obviously, still highly vigorous.
However, on his Monday off-day, Lou and teammate Bill Dickey traveled all the way to Ocean City, Maryland to partake in some off-shore fishing. Gehrig caught an eighty-five pound marlin, but only after an arduous thirty-two minute struggle. They then returned all the way back to Yankee Stadium where Lou played every inning of a double-header on Tuesday. Since Gehrig’s season statistics dipped noticeably from here to the end of the year, it is fair to wonder if this grueling sequence of events somehow triggered the onslaught of his latent neurological malady. Apparently not.
The same day, August 3, 1937, Lou Gehrig smashed a home run, initiating a nine game mini-rampage, during which he essentially maintained his batting average while pounding eight home runs. In fact, at the end of August, Lou was still hitting .368, but, for whatever reason, this was the beginning of the end. For the remainder of the 1937 season, Gehrig batted only .294 (slugging .454), and then batted only one point higher for the entire 1938 campaign.
Of course, the downturn in September of ’37 could have been merely the result of a slump due to normal fatigue or pure coincidence. Remember that Lou had "run out of gas" down the stretch of his epic 1927 home run duel with Babe Ruth. Gehrig was only twenty-four at that time, but he clearly hit the wall as that season wound down. In reviewing Lou’s entire career pattern, he does seem to have slumped slightly late in the year. But that trend was not drastic. For example, in 1933, Gehrig’s best single month was September when he recorded ten of his thirty-two home runs.
Without having extensive training in neurological science, it is impossible to make any definitive sense out of all this. Yet, it seems logical that something more sinister, like the inception of ALS, was taking hold of Lou Gehrig in the closing weeks of 1937. If so, what does that tell us about the man? At the least, it suggests that he was as strong in mind as he was in his extraordinary body. Lou willed himself to productive performances, when it mattered most, in both the 1937 and 1938 World Series. Of course, during this same time of intense personal trial, Lou Gehrig remained in the lineup every single day until his nearly total physical meltdown in May, 1939. What a remarkable demonstration of courage and fortitude!
Oddly, the only person who is known to have seen it all coming was none other than Babe Ruth. As of 1937, the Babe had been retired for nearly two years, but, prior to that time, had been Lou’s teammate (and usually his close friend) for ten unparalleled seasons. Interviewed at his New York home on January 26, Gehrig’s consecutive game streak was one of the topics. Ruth was never known as an intellectual, but he was much smarter than most folks realized. In part, he made these prescient comments:
"I think Lou’s making one of the worst mistakes a ball player
can make by trying to keep up that Iron Man stuff…He’s already
cut three years off his baseball life with it…He oughta learn to sit
on the bench and rest…They’re not going to pay off on how many
games he’s played in a row…The next two years will tell Gehrig’s
It is nearly incredible that Babe Ruth could have predicted Lou Gehrig’s downfall with such astonishing accuracy. Of course, Ruth knew nothing about ALS, and based his dire predictions on the belief that Lou’s legs would fail. Maybe it was just a lucky guess, but Babe was almost always right when speaking intuitively. Either way, it was typical Ruthian magic which fit directly into Babe’s lifelong predilection for doing the impossible. Essentially, Gehrig followed the same timeline for disintegration that Ruth had forecast. Even, the Bambino, however, could not have foreseen the classic battle that his esteemed pal would wage before ultimately succumbing.
It is a fact that Lou Gehrig was immensely proud of his exceptional physicality. He reveled in his ability to function in ways that normal men could not. He never boasted or gloated, but he was justifiably mindful of his accomplishments. Surely, when he began to prematurely lose his special gift, he must have known that something had gone terribly wrong. How could such a consummate professional fail to notice that the ball suddenly stopped flying as far when he hit it? Yet, he never complained or made excuses. He just worked harder than ever, and kept marching forward.
It is my belief that, sometime during the 1937 season, Henry Louis Gehrig began to atrophy due to the onset of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Yet, he still managed to play solid, winning baseball until early 1939 when his Spartan willpower finally failed to command his collapsing body. It all culminated in his historic, farewell address for the ages on the Fourth of July in that same year. It was one of the rare, truly transcendent moments in America’s sport history… one brave man’s actions which have evolved into a shared experience that has enriched all of our lives.
Baseball Historian (Copyright-2010)
Epilogue: There have been recent ALS studies that may change our understanding of what killed Lou Gehrig. Among others, Dr. Ann McKee (a neuropathologist associated with both the Boston University School of Medicine and New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers) has offered some compelling insights into this topic.
Based upon studies of former NFL players with significant history of head trauma, it is now believed that some patients, previously diagnosed with ALS, may actually have suffered from a different neurological disorder caused by repetitive head injury. The symptoms of both problems are so similar that accurately differentiating them is difficult.
Since we know of, at least, four documented concussions suffered by Lou Gehrig, it is reasonable to question his long-standing association with the disease that now bears his name. When you also consider his years of football activity in high school and college, there is even more reason to wonder. According to contemporary accounts, Lou usually took the ball, lowered his head, and ran forward until somebody knocked him down.
Since Gehrig was cremated, his remains can’t be studied by modern methods, insuring that we will never definitively know his exact cause of death. Of course, from a behavioral perspective, it really doesn’t matter. Either way, Lou heroically endured a degenerative neurological disease that relentlessly robbed him of his physical vitality and ultimately killed him.
From a scientific standpoint, however, it is essential that Dr. McKee and her associates continue their inquiries. In so doing, it is hoped that others will not unnecessarily suffer the same fate as Lou Gehrig.