Remembering Lou Gehrig on the 4th of July

5 07 2009

lou31lou22 This 4th of July 2009 is was an unusual one for me.  I have very few memories of the 4th outside of Bristol Bay, Alaska where the tradition is to let loose all the flares that were pushing their “use by” dates, turning the rivers hot pink with intense luminous willow wisps.  It was always the busiest time for a salmon fisherman in the Bay and even remembering the reason for the 4th of July was always an elusive act and a mix of emotions both playful and solemn and humble. 

This year started with a trip out to Yellowsprings, OH to do a quick jaunt down the Little Miami Trail and get ready for the Tri State Trek.  I was able to catch up with my dear friend Vicky and her lovely 4 month old, Emmitt – who was a rash of beautiful smiles and brazen energy.  Vicky and her husband, BJ, are the proud owners of Ha Ha Pizza, the finish line for the Fairborn/Dayton leg of the Iron Horse Challenge.  We took a walk down to the orange spring that help color the name of Yellowsprings and then under drizzley clouds, Audra and I made our way back to Columbus, just in time to race off to a ironic birthday celebration of good food, eclectic company, poetry, all back grounded with bombastic fireworks.  It was a lovely way to celebrate the 4th of July and remember the price of Independence. 

A few days earlier, I got a facebook message from Matt Mandel, one of the key people out at ALSTDI and the TRI STATE TREK and the 1st person to contact me, when I had made the decision to get involved with trying to fight this disease from the front lines.  Matt was kind enough to send me a sneak peak at the new jersey for this years TREK and I stumbled for a minute as I tried to interpret its symbolism and message:

http://tristatetrek.com/pdf/2009trekjersey.pdf

I was humbled to realize that despite my clear desire to understand and communicate the costs of this disease, that the fact that its personal effect in my life, with its having taken my mother’s (Sandy Schulte) life, was still a prominent eclipse in my grasping the effect of this disease.  I say this because, the massive 70 on the jersey confused me until I realized that it stood for the 70 years since Lou Gehrig’s speech at Yankee Stadium, where he declared himself to be the “Luckiest Man Alive”. 

I realized with this 4th of July, in a fresh way, how to remember the beauty, wonder, preciousness, and fragility of the lives we have.  To more profoundly celebrate the need for Independence, for the ability to live our lives as individuals, both independent and connected to each other. 

70 years ago a man stood before a stadium of fans, team mates, supporters and stepped down from the life he had created to give his all to fight for it.  The disease was going to take his life in 2 years (the same as it did to my mother) and his name was going to become one with the thing he fought: Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS).  The fight is still out there and the people who are fighting it, who have fought it with all they have, with their lives, are still here too.  Lets remember the man, Lou Gehrig, and remember all those names who have gotten shadowed by this disease this 4th of July and everyday after it.  Lets honor the lives who fight, who have fought, and who have died.

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Here is a moment in Lou Gehrig’s fight:

 Lou Gehrig’s Disease

In 1938, Gehrig fell below .300 for the first time since 1925 and it was clear that there was something wrong. He lacked his usual strength. Pitches he would have hit for home runs were only flyouts. Doctors diagnosed a gall bladder problem first, and they put him on a bland diet, which only made him weaker. Teammate Wes Ferrell noticed that on the golf course, instead of wearing golf cleats, Gehrig was wearing tennis shoes and sliding his feet along the ground. Ferrell was frightened. When asked if he would remove Gehrig from the lineup, manager Joe McCarthy said, “That’s Lou’s decision.”

Gehrig played the first eight games of the 1939 season, but he managed only four hits. On a ball hit back to pitcher Johnny Murphy, Gehrig had trouble getting to first in time for the throw. When he returned to the dugout, his teammates complimented him on the “good play.” Gehrig knew when his fellow Yankees had to congratulate him for stumbling into an average catch it was time to leave. He took himself out of the game. On May 2, 1939, as Yankee captain, he took the lineup card to the umpires, as usual. But his name was not on the roster. Babe Dahlgren was stationed at first. The game announcer intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Gehrig’s consecutive streak of 2,130 games played has ended.”

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed Gehrig with a very rare form of degenerative disease: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is now called Lou Gehrig’s disease. There was no chance he would ever play baseball again.

New York sportswriter Paul Gallico suggested the team have a recognition day to honor Gehrig on July 4, 1939. There were more than 62,000 fans in attendance as Gehrig stood on the field at Yankee Stadium with the 1927 and 1939 Yankees. He fought back tears of overwhelming emotion and began to speak his immortal words of thanks, calling himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” It was one of the most poignant and emotional moments in the history of American sports, and there was not a dry eye in Yankee Stadium. At the close of Gehrig’s speech, Babe Ruth walked up, put his arm around his former teammate and spoke in his ear the first words they had shared since 1934.

Gehrig was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame that December. Although his career in baseball was over and his health was on a steady decline, Gehrig began work in the community. Mayor Fiorelli LaGuardia asked him to join the Parole Board, where he could help troubled youths. Gehrig was sworn in for a 10-year term in June 1940. His heath continued to fail, however, and he had to take a leave of absence. Eleanor, Gehrig’s wife of eight years, remained by his side as his health deteriorated.

On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig succumbed to ALS and the country mourned. Eleanor received over 1,500 notes and telegrams of condolence at their home in Riverdale, New York. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt even sent her flowers. Gehrig was cremated and his ashes were buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Lou Gehrig is remembered as one of the most talented and phenomenal baseball players of all time. More than that, however, he is remembered for his kind heart and winning attitude. When actor Edward Hermann was hired to play Gehrig in a TV movie, at first he had trouble capturing the essence of the reserved, quiet Gehrig. “What made it so tough is I could find no ‘key’ to his character. There was no strangeness, nothing spectacular about him. As Eleanor Gehrig told me, he was just a square, honest guy.”

Sportswriter Jim Murray once described the tall, strong Gehrig as a “Gibraltar in cleats.” Gehrig’s character lay somewhere between the average and the mythic. He was a dedicated athlete, a caring son and husband, an honest man and an American hero.

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Lou Gehrig’s Speech:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

 

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