Any sports fan, and especially a fan of baseball, has seen footage of Lou Gehrig standing at home plate at Yankee Stadium. In that black and white news reel film from July 4, 1939, we've heard Gehrig's words echo throughout the stadium proclaiming he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
With nearly 62,000 fans and many dignitaries in attendance and countless millions since, many have thought, and continue to think, that when Gehrig spoke those words that he was thinking of the great speeches people like Yankee manager, Joe McCarthy or Babe Ruth spoke about Gehrig that day. Was he thankful for being able to play baseball? Was he thankful for playing for the powerful New York Yankees? Was he thankful for so many fans who came out to see him bid the game he loved so much a tearful goodbye as he battled a dipilitating disease that so few knew anything about?
No. He considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" because of what a 12 year old boy did. You see two years earlier, while on a road trip in Chicago, he visited the Children's Hospital of Chicago and visited a young boy sticken with polio. Tim was the boy's name and refused to go to therapy. Lou, like so many boys of the day, was Tim's hero. Tim's parents wish were desperate that Tim would get well. They were hoping that Lou could convince the 10 year old to go to therapy. Tim was surprised beyond belief that his hero, THE Lou Gehrig came to visit him. Lou told him he wanted Tim to get well and to go to therapy to be able to walk again. Tim told his hero that if Lou would hit a home run in that day's game against the Chicago White Sox, that he would learn to walk again. Lou made the promise.
Gehrig, being the humble person that he was, felt a great sense of obligation to hold up his end of the bargain. He hoped beyond hope that he could fulfill that promise. Not to pad his stats, but to help a little boy get out of his bed and learn to walk. It was all about Tim. Lou didn't hit one homerun that day....he hit two.
Fast forward to 1939. Gehrig had been showing signs that he wasn't himself as early as spring training. Lou had been struggling at the plate and in the field. On April 30, 1939, he visited Yankee manager Joe McCarthy's hotel room to tell him that he wouldn't be plaing that day in a game against the Detroit Tigers. The umpires were surprised and so were the Tigers. So much so that it was announced over the public address system that this would be the first time in 2,130 games that Gehrig would not be in the lineup. The Tiger fans were so appreciative of Gehrig's achievement that they gave him a standing ovation as he sat in the Yankee dugout with tears coming from his eyes.
Gehrig continued to struggle physically. Lou and his wife, Elanor, went to the Mayo Clinic in Chicago on June 13, 1939. Six days of extensive testing revealed the horrible diagnosis. On Gehrig's 36th birthday, June 19, 1939, he learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). A disease that now bears his name. ALS is a form of musclar dystrophy that attacks certain nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Lou and Elanor learned that the disease would cause paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking and he would live, at the most, another three years. It would be painless. It wasn't contagious. But while his body deteriated, the mind would full well know what was going on.
Two days later, the Yankees announced that Gehrig would retire. They began to plan Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. The mayor would be there. So would the governor. Members of the famed 1927 World Championship Yankees team dubbed "Murderer's Row" were making plans to be there. So would young Tim.
So on July 4, 1939 after the many speeches and after the famous Babe Ruth made his comments, Tim, who was now 12 years old, walked out of the dugout and dropped his crutches. With the help of leg braces, he walked to home plate to hug his hero around the waist. That is what Lou really meant by being the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Lou kept his promise two years before. Tim had kept his by going to therapy and learning to walk again.
Sadly, less than two years later on June 2, 1941, Henry Louis "Lou" Gehrig passed away. The day of his passing was 16 years to the day that he replaced Wally "Pee Wee" Pipp as the starting first baseman for the Yankees. It was also two years to the day that announced he was retiring from baseball. He was the first major league player to have his number retired. At age 36, he was the youngest to be inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Musuem.
On July 4, 2009, Lou was honored by Major League Baseball. Every MLB team and umpire had a patch on their uniform that had his number four and ALS on it. Jon Sciambi, Atlanta Braves announcer for Fox Sports South, recalled a good friend of his who died of ALS in 2007. He talked about how hard it was watching his friend go down the difficult paths the disease makes you walk. He also talked about a project called Project Mainstreet in which donated money goes directly to famalies who have loved ones affected with the disease. You can visit the website at www.projectmainst.org to learn more of what they do.
So while we watched baseball and celebrated America's 223rd birthday, we should also have taken a few moments to learn about a great player of a bygone era, Lou Gehrig. Not only what he did between the lines, but what he did off the diamond.