EPILOGUE: Lou Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, in bed at his home in Riverdale, N.Y., his wife at his side. The subsequent movie based on his life, “The Pride of the Yankees,??? starring Gary Cooper, was a box-office hit. The association of Gehrig’s name with ALS has led to millions of dollars in fund-raising to fight the disease, but a cure still has not been found.
Editor’s note: This article is a review of the book “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig,” by Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster), Copyright 2005 by Jonathan Eig. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.
Introduction: As the 2005 baseball season progresses, doctors worldwide are still puzzling over a disease that killed one of the game’s most famous players: New York Yankees star Lou Gehrig.
The disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is now known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and continues to make news as it claims lives, notably the 2004 death of golfer Tom Watson’s caddy, Bruce Edwards, and the ongoing struggle of Des Moines Register columnist Rob Borsellino. The international debate over stem-cell research also is linked to the quest for a cure for ALS.
In this excerpt from a new biography of Gehrig, “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig” (Simon & Schuster), Wall Street Journal writer Jonathan Eig uses unpublished letters between Gehrig and his doctors to chronicle Gehrig’s treatment and final days.
By 1939, Gehrig had quit the Yankees after his still-mysterious physical deterioration eroded his game. Ultimately he was diagnosed with ALS at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, N.Y., but how much he knew or was told about the grimness of his prospects is still debated.
As this excerpt opens, in 1939, the Yankees are beginning the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in Yankee Stadium in New York.
Excerpt: On the morning of the first day of the World Series, Eddie Joost, Paul Derringer and Bucky Walters of the Reds took a taxi from the team’s hotel to Yankee Stadium. As they were getting out of the cab, a Packard pulled to a stop in front of them. From a distance of fifty feet, they couldn’t make out the driver, but they watched as he got out of the car and fell to the curb, pawing at the door of his car and trying to pull himself back up.
“So we went over to help,” Joost recalled. “When we got to him, we saw it was Gehrig. We said, ‘Hey what the hell’s going on? Are you OK?’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll make it.’ He wasn’t embarrassed by it.” The men walked together into the park, chatting about the game. Joost looked down and noticed that Gehrig was shuffling his feet like an old man in slippers as they headed toward the clubhouse.
As the World Series began, Gehrig received the celebrity treatment, even though he wasn’t playing. Reporters and photographers crowded around, recognizing no doubt that they might never again see him in pinstripes. In New York, Babe Ruth dropped by to have his picture taken with his old home-run hitting partner. In Cincinnati, Gehrig signed an autograph for Frank Sinatra, a twenty-three-year-old singer who had just joined the Harry James band and recorded his first hit songs. Sinatra grinned from ear to ear as he stood before Gehrig in the Yankee dugout, the autograph gripped tightly in his left hand.
Gehrig didn’t step onto the field during the Series, not even to present a lineup card. One writer speculated that (Yankees manager) Joe McCarthy didn’t want fans to see how poorly the former first baseman walked.
The Yanks swept the Reds in four games, confirming their place as one of the game’s greatest teams of all time. For the Yankees, championships had once again come to seem routine, as they had in the early days of Gehrig’s career. From 1927 to 1939, the Yankees won seven out of thirteen championships. In World Series play over that stretch, they won 28 games and lost only three. Gehrig probably didn’t feel as if he’d added much in the most recent campaign, but he had been a critical player — perhaps the critical player — in an era of remarkable Yankee domination. Though he didn’t play in the 1939 Series, he was listed as an active member of the team and received a full share — ,542 — of the team’s World Series income. He joined his former teammates in the clubhouse for one last victory celebration, one last chorus of “The Beer Barrel Polka.”
By winter, Gehrig was no longer writing letters by hand, his penmanship having become as sloppy as his fielding had been six months earlier. On December 2, he dictated a letter to (his doctor) Paul O’Leary. It’s not clear whether (wife) Eleanor, a nurse, or someone else typed it for him.
“Dear Paul,” he began. “Thank you for your kind letter, and I am making every effort to follow your instructions to the letter T. Yesterday I doused the cigarette that I was smoking on the arrival of your letter, had four puffs at long intervals, smoked one after dinner and one about midnight. This morning I tried one after breakfast and it tasted lousy, made me half dizzy so I put it out.” Before the doctor told him to cut back, Gehrig had been smoking heavily.
He went on to ask if O’Leary might arrange for a test to check for tumors on his spine. “I have been troubled with my back for the past ten years as you know,” Gehrig wrote.
But never before has it hit me when I haven’t been indulging in strenuous exercise. About three weeks ago I had an attack which began on the left side, I would say on the outer edge of the lung, and the same as usual, in three or four days it worked itself up to that identical section of the spine where it has always ended.