Learning About Lou Gehrig, his Diagnosis, Disability and Pride
I can’t resist mentioning that today I caught part of another old baseball flick in the gym. Pride of the Yankees, on TCM, features Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. Sam Wood directed this 1942 MGM classic in which Babe Ruth appears, briefly in cameo, as Babe Ruth. A Times reviewer, writing after its July 1942 release, complained that the film didn’t include enough baseball, nor sufficient drama until its end. That may be true. But your athletically-challenged author was moved by this film, and stopped by some of the scenes depicting how information was conveyed in that era, about the star’s declining health.
I learned about Lou Gehrig in medical school. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is a progressive and serious neurological disease that tends to affect a person’s voluntary (“motor”) muscles, such as those of the arms, legs and face. The CDC maintains a national registry for the condition, which is of unknown cause and, to the best of my knowledge today, remains on the shortening list of incurable conditions. The NIH estimates that 20-30,000 people are living with ALS, and that some 5,000 or so are found to have this condition each year in the United States. It typically affects, or “strikes” – as it’s almost universally metaphored, people in their forties or fifties.
(Forgive me the verb, this post is both serious and personal.)
A former colleague, whom I admire and will always remember for what he has taught me about immunology and even more by his working through illness, has ALS and has continued contributing for the long time, over 20 years, that I have known him. What enables some people with illness, i.e. patients, to keep contributing in their field of expertise is, first, their wanting to keep working. But it also requires a sensitive and encouraging environment – a workplace that allows people with knowledge, who become disabled or limited by health concerns, to work as best they can.
I learned that Lou Gehrig was a New Yorker. He was born to German immigrants in Yorkville, near where I live in Manhattan. According to his biography in the Baseball Hall of Fame, the left-hander was born in June 19, 1903 and died on June 2, 1941, a few weeks shy of what would have been his 38th birthday. He was called the Iron Horse and played first base for the Yankees. In the movie, it takes Gehrig a while to realize, or admit, that he can’t play baseball – that he’s stumbling and struggling to even hold a bat, or run or walk. Once the athlete acknowledges his limitations, he is treated kindly and generously by his manager, teammates and fans. At first, the doctor in the Scripps Clinic doesn’t want to tell him the truth about his condition. But Gehrig wants the numbers, the statistics, facts. Finally, after Cooper, playing Gehrig, asks him if it’s “three strikes.” The doctor answers that, yes it is. The patient understands his meaning. No one in the room can pronounce the words “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” but Gehrig gets the picture. The patient doesn’t want to tell his wife but, as these things usually go, she figures it out.
The Yankees and Gehrig’s manager try to keep his illness a secret, but after he gives up his spot on the roster, it becomes progressively evident that something is seriously wrong. One nugget in the film is an interaction with what might be considered a peer patient. Early on, Gehrig encounters a boy who can’t walk, and offers him encouragement. Later, once Gehrig’s condition has become evident, the young man comes to tell him thanks, and to show Gehrig he’s gotten better, by not giving up. But the boy becomes tearful and appears not to enter the stadium. It seems his hero’s deteriorating condition is too much to watch.
On July 4, 1939, Gehrig gave a speech before a packed Yankee stadium. He thanked his teammates, coach, sportscasters, athletes of other teams, fans, his parents and his wife, and concluded, famously, that he was “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”