May 30, 2024
Lou Gehrig's disease: Why ALS is forever associated with one of America's baseball greats

Lou Gehrig’s disease: Why ALS is forever associated with one of America’s baseball greats

“For the past two weeks, you have been reading about a bad break,” Gehrig told the crowd, his voice thick with emotion, making the last word sound more like ‘brag.’ “(Yet) today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

The “bad break” was his recent diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS. The progressive, degenerative disease affects motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord that control muscle movement. It impacts speech, as well as the ability to eat, move and breathe.
Now, 80 years later, Major League Baseball is commemorating Lou Gehrig Day for the first time on June 2: the day Gehrig became a Yankees’ regular in 1925, and the day he died in 1941 at just 37 years old. All 30 MLB parks are taking part to promote ALS awareness and raise funds for research.

Gehrig was an unlikely American hero. The son of poor immigrant parents, he was born in New York in 1903. “If it wasn’t for baseball, he really had very few prospects,” says Jonathan Eig, author of “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.”

It was at Columbia University in 1921 that Gehrig first discovered baseball. Spotted by a talent scout, he was later signed to the Yankees in 1923.

A young Lou Gehrig got his baseball start at Columbia University in New York, where he was spotted by a Yankees scout.
At a time when the entire country was struggling through the Great Depression, Eig says Gehrig became “a symbol of endurance.” Best known for his 2,130 consecutive-game streak (a record that wouldn’t be broken until 1995), Gehrig also held the record for career grand slams until 2013, was voted Most Valuable Player twice, and won the Triple Crown in 1934, one of the rarest feats in baseball.

“He’s the ‘Iron Horse,’ he’s the train: he shows up every day for work,” Eig says.

Despite his Hall of Fame career, Gehrig never sought the limelight, says Eig — and with charismatic and controversial teammates, including Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, Gehrig had little difficulty avoiding attention.

But in 1939, he started missing the ball and took himself out of the line-up. When he was diagnosed with ALS six weeks later, his baseball career officially ended. His retirement came as a shock to teammates and fans alike, and the ceremony on July 4 put the spotlight firmly on him, where he reluctantly took the mic.

Gehrig pictured with his wife Eleanor, whom he called a "tower of strength" during his farewell address.

“Gehrig told the MC that he didn’t want to speak, that he was too moved to say anything. The crowd began to cheer, began to chant, ‘We want Lou, We want Lou,’ and finally Gehrig’s manager, Joe McCarthy, gave him a little shove and Lou went up to the microphone,” says Eig.

Filled with thanks for his teammates and family, the speech is an exercise in gratitude — “When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed,” he said, “that’s the finest I know” — all the more remarkable given what Gehrig was facing.

“There’s a great lesson there for all of us, because we are all going to face tragedy. We are all going to die,” says Eig. “What Gehrig is saying is that it’s not the longevity that counts: it’s the quality of the life.”

Searching for a cure

Eight decades after his death, there remains no cure for ALS, now commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease in the US. But for the committee who created Lou Gehrig Day — a group of 25 people with ALS, caregivers and family members of those with the disease — it’s about more than just honoring the baseball legend, says Larry Falivena, committee member and board member of the ALS Association.
Larry Falivena pictured with his family.
Diagnosed with ALS in 2017, Falivena quit his job in 2019 and set off on a three-month tour with his family, visiting all 30 baseball parks to raise awareness of ALS. “We called it the ‘Iron Horse tour,’ after Lou Gehrig,” says Falivena. “About halfway through the tour, some folks reached out to me with an idea to ask Major League Baseball to create an official Lou Gehrig Day.”
With the support of the teams Falivena visited on his trip, the committee approached Major League Baseball with its proposal. While individual teams have been involved in fundraising initiatives for ALS over the years, including the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014, this would be MLB’s first official nationwide ALS campaign recurring annually.
By increasing awareness, Falivena hopes that some of the 169 active research projects across the US can get more funding in the search for treatments to improve life expectancy and a cure for the disease. Since the committee began organizing Lou Gehrig Day less than two years ago, six of its members have died from the disease, including co-founder Bryan Wayne Galentine, whom Falivena credits with the original idea.

Activities will vary from stadium to stadium depending on pandemic restrictions, says Falivena, and players, managers and coaches will wear special uniform patches and red “4-ALS” wristbands bearing Gehrig’s retired Yankees’ uniform number, symbolizing a relationship that was cemented on a summer day in 1939 when Gehrig bid farewell.

“I might have been given a bad break,” he told the fans that day, “but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”

Falivena says that Gehrig and his speech “reflect the community of people with ALS.”

“They are people who, for the most part, are just extremely positive and face this devastating disease with hope, grace, and a fighting spirit,” he says. “I think that relates really well with Lou: he’s not only remembered as a great player, but as a good person.”