|Baseball great Lou Gehrig ( public domain)|
I recently finished listening to Jonathan Eig’s Luckiest Man – The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig on Audible* while, fittingly, driving back and forth from New York. The front end of the title refers to the tragic irony of the famous quote from Gehrig as being “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” as he was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 36. ALS, now commonly referred to as ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease,’ is a debilitating ailment that fuels the death of neurons controlling its victim’s voluntary muscles.
Gehrig was stricken with the disease while in the golden years of his career as a standout in the Yankees’ lineup. During his playing days, he methodically compiled a 2,130 consecutive game streak that ended in 1939, two years prior to his death, and would stand as a record for 56 years. His longevity was surpassed by his spectacular talent – the numbers that Gehrig put up in the prime of his career remain among the best in baseball history. In 1931, to use one example of many, he drove in 181 runs. It came in the midst of a run of 13 straight years of more than 100 RBIs. During his shortened career he also belted 493 home runs in an era when the ball was still widely considered ‘dead,’ outfield fences outdistanced their modern counterparts, and steroids had not yet been invented.
Both his endurance and talent were eclipsed by his character – one that often stands in such contrast to modern mores as to seem fictional. Despite traveling on the road on extended barnstorming tours with the famously flamboyant Babe Ruth, Gehrig to all appearances flew as straight an arrow through his career as any player of consequence in the 20th century. He used the money from his first significant contract to purchase his own home, and then promptly moved his parents in. He was so humble when interviewed that until very late in his career interviewing Gehrig was often deemed not worth the effort – especially with the ever-quotable Ruth just feet away. Sadly, it was the jarring onset of ALS that compelled many to first see the Yankee slugger as the treasure that he was.
Eig takes a studied look at Gehrig away from the field and does an outstanding job sifting through the developmental moments of his early life that later shaped his career and his final, valiant struggle with ALS. – TF
*note: the audio version includes the narrative talent of the late Ed Herrmann augmenting the text.