Lou Gehrig’s generosity of spirit shines in new book
In the pre-television and internet era, it’s hard to imagine the wattage a star player such as Lou Gehrig created or the emotion generated by his famous 1939 farewell speech at Yankee Stadium.
Decades later, as the Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken closed in on the consecutive games record Gehrig had held since Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis took him out of the lineup, the ghost of Gehrig visited that 1995 season, reminding us again of the man of uncommon decency and grace and a body built to drive baseballs out of stadiums.
Early in his career, Gehrig was persuaded to write a series of newspaper essays about baseball life. How much editing took place is unclear but Gehrig was a student at Columbia University when the Yankees took note of his baseball skills — so presumably Gehrig could string together some coherent thoughts.
And the pieces — all reproduced in this book — mesh with the polite, reserved, determined and humble son of German immigrants superbly painted in Jonathan Eig’s definitive Gehrig biography, “The Luckiest Man.”
Imagine essays today by a sports superstar absent any revelations to shock and ignite social media. Gehrig, however, finds goodness in all his teammates and competitors, even perhaps the roughest player ever — Ty Cobb.
ALS remains an “orphan” disease, not afflicting enough people to draw the major research attention and funding as does cancer, for example. Now most commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, it relentlessly punishes its victims, robbing them of their muscle coordination and their ability to speak as their neuro-muscular systems break down.
Someday ALS will be conquered and that will revive debate about how much longer Gehrig might have played. He was just 37 when he died and he was showing symptoms four years earlier.
Ever since he played, the narrative on Gehrig mostly follows his baseball achievements and his consecutive games record that stood for half a century — one of the most iconic feats in all of sports.
Gaff astutely crafts a biography to accompany Gehrig’s columns and focuses on details that parallel Gehrig’s generosity of spirit.
Perhaps most movingly, Gaff revisits the Yankee great’s post-baseball career. Despite the ravages of ALS, Gehrig worked for the parole board, counseling young men who had taken a wrong turn in life. “Even when he could barely sit in his office chair, he came to work everyday,” Gaff writes of Gehrig.
Hundreds of those young men filed past Gehrig’s coffin the day after he died.
One of Gehrig’s last visitors was Ed Barrow, Yankees’ general manager from 1921 to 1927. Gaff reports that by then Gehrig could not walk, dress or feed himself. Yet as Barrow left, Gehrig said “I’ll beat it, boss.”
What you would expect from a man who never gave up?