Baseball brings awareness to Lou Gehrig’s disease


Major League Baseball is noted more for being tone deaf than socially conscious, trailing both the NBA and NFL when it comes to that type of awareness and activism.

But Wednesday, the leadership of the sport got it right by proclaiming the occasion Lou Gehrig Day.

June 2 was no accidental date choice. Gehrig ended his famous playing streak on a June 2 and he died on a June 2.

The Gehrig recognition came 80 years after the greatest first baseman of all-time died from a horrible wasting disease that has become synonymous with his name.

The actual name of the illness that killed Gehrig is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, but as the most prominent person afflicted with the incurable disease that laid low an immensely powerful athlete, his name became so intertwined in the public mind they became one and the same.

It would be less sad to celebrate Gehrig merely for his baseball accomplishments, but courage in the face of impossible odds is part of his package.

As an unassuming man, Gehrig was always behind top banana Babe Ruth in show business billing when they teamed up with the New York Yankees in the 1920s and 1930s. Ruth was the consummate showman, Gehrig the epitome of the shy man. There was an imbalance of ego in them. Still, Americans revel in the exploits of both types of men, Ruth the flamboyant, Gehrig the industrious.

Baseball has only twice before honored players with this type of universal recognition, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. Robinson was the pioneer who broke the restrictive racial color line in 1947. Clemente, a hero especially to Latino players and fans, died at 38 on a mission of mercy bringing earthquake supplies to Nicaragua when his plane crashed in 1972.

Gehrig’s nickname was “The Iron Horse,” earned for playing 2,130 straight games, inhabiting the Yankees lineup for every contest from 1925 into 1939.

He played through minor injuries and aches and pains, coming to work every day without fail. Why would you want to take him out anyway?

Gehrig led the American League in home runs three times, slamming 493 in all. I sure wish he could have reached 500. He knocked in 1,995 runs, and I sorely wish he could have batted in 2,000. Gehrig led the league in that category five times. Some seasonal totals were Herculean with as many as 183 RBI in one year. 183? Nobody does that anymore and hardly ever did.

His lifetime batting average was .340. Nobody does that anymore, either.

Gehrig was known for decorum, dignity and that streak. It took a fatal disease to knock him out of the lineup. The affliction slowly eating him up had not been diagnosed, but Gehrig was falling apart in ways he could not fathom after ALS gripped him.

His marvelous 6-foot, 200-pound body no longer responded to the necessary commands needed to conquer the curveball or to time fielding a grounder. He knew something was amiss and went from New York to the Mayo Clinic to receive his bad news-prognosis.

Within two years, Gehrig was dead at 37. Under ordinary circumstances, he might still have been on the roster.

There was no cure for Gehrig then, and there is still no cure. ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, attacks the nervous system, the cells that control muscles, one by one, leading to weakness, loss of all mobility and death. It is a grim disease.

Baseball is trying to raise money for research with this special day. Logos reading “4-ALS” (Gehrig’s uniform number and the shorthand for the illness) were displayed in every park. Players, managers and coaches wore a “Lou Gehrig Day” patch. Various teams did additional things.

ALS is very much a hit-home plague for others in baseball. Seattle Mariners outfielder Stephen Piscotty’s mother died from ALS, and his father, Mike, helped organize this day.

One might think eight decades after Gehrig’s death science and the medical world would have an answer. A coronavirus vaccine was available a year after COVID-19 struck. There have been tremendous strides made in treating HIV. Not ALS.

An ALS diagnosis is still a death sentence.

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