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O'TOOLE: Lou 'Iron Horse' Gehrig: A class act

• Jul 3, 2018 at 3:00 PM

“Today I consider myself the luckiest man on earth.”

Lou Gehrig spoke these words, among the most iconic in American pop culture, on July 4, 1939.

You’ve probably seen the film clip: A man in a baseball uniform, cap in hand, bows his head before a cluster of microphones. He speaks haltingly, his voice full of emotion, each word echoing in the crowded stadium.

The occasion was Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. The New York Yankees had announced his retirement two weeks earlier. The announcement came after tests at the Mayo Clinic determined Gehrig was afflicted with the rare neuromuscular disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It was his 36th birthday.

ALS is an incurable disease in which the muscles progressively weaken, resulting in paralysis. According to lougehrig.com: “The disease attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Motor neurons, which control the movement of voluntary muscles, deteriorate and eventually die. When the motor neurons die, the brain can no longer initiate and control muscle movement. Because muscles no longer receive the messages they need in order to function, they gradually weaken and deteriorate.”

Gehrig wrote to his wife Eleanor that his prognosis was “chronic infantile paralysis.” His description was apt. While the disease is painless and noncontagious, an ALS patient suffers difficulty speaking and swallowing and a loss of motor function, while the mind remains fully aware.

Illness ended Gehrig’s illustrious career. It came on suddenly, with no warning. There was no known cause. Gehrig was a very healthy, strong man. He had every reason to be angry and bitter. That he was instead grateful is an example to us all, and testament to his character on and off the field.

America first noticed Gehrig’s spectacular baseball skills when he was just a teenager. At 17, Gehrig was playing high school baseball at what is now Wrigley Field when he hit a grand slam out of the park. That he hit a grand slam is phenomenal in itself. But the fact that he hit it out of the park — well that prompted coverage in national newspapers. One journalist even called him “Babe Gehrig.”

Coincidentally, Gehrig would join the Yankees in 1923 and bat right behind Babe Ruth.

Gehrig played very little his first two seasons, mostly as a pinch hitter. But beginning June 2, 1925, when he replaced Wally Pipp at first base, and ending May 1, 1939, when he took himself out of the lineup, he played in 2,130 consecutive games — 2,130! That means stepping up to the plate day after day, season after season for 14 years, despite injuries, pain or illness.

X-rays at the end of his life revealed that over the course of his 17 seasons with the Yankees, Gehrig suffered 17 fractures. He was also knocked unconscious several times. There were no batting helmets then, and he took a few errant pitches to the head. Ground balls hit him in the face more than once.

Modern doctors question whether Gehrig died of ALS or repeated head trauma, also known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which mimics ALS. We’ll never know. Gehrig’s body was cremated and his medical records were sealed, so it’s not known whether there was an autopsy.

ALS is now commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Not only did Gehrig come to the plate in 2,130 consecutive games, but he put up impressive numbers in those games. His batting average topped .300 in 12 consecutive years. His 184 RBIs in the 1931 season remains the American League’s highest single-season total. He was the first 20th-century player to hit four consecutive home runs in one game. His career record of 23 grand slams went unbroken until 1994. He was a seven-time All-Star, two-time American League MVP and six-time World Series champion. In 1934, Gehrig won the Triple Crown for batting average, home runs and runs batted in. He was just as effective at fielding, as he went errorless for 885 games.

“Gehrig certainly is one of the Yanks’ prize locomotives — a veritable Iron Horse to pull the team along over the grades,” wrote Will Wedge in 1931. Iron Horse became Gehrig’s nickname.

The Yankees were the first professional sports team to put numbers on their jerseys. The numbers represented their order in the batting lineup. Babe Ruth was 3, Iron Horse was 4.

“I always knew that as long as I was following Babe to the plate I could have gone up there and stood on my head,” Gehrig said. “No one would have noticed the difference.”

He was always in Babe’s shadow. “It’s a pretty big shadow,” Gehrig told a reporter. “It gives me lots of room to spread myself.”

Instead of being envious or resentful, he saw opportunity. Where Babe sought the limelight and boisterously showed off to earn the public’s attention and adoration, Iron Horse quietly did his job and bashfully avoided the public eye wherever possible. Classy guy.

“I might have had a tough break,” Gehrig said at the end of his speech on July 4, 1939. “But I have an awful lot to live for.”

He died at home in his sleep on June 2, 1941. He was 37.

His widow, Eleanor, never remarried and she devoted her life to research and awareness of ALS. She died in 1984. They had no children.

Lou Gehrig was a model athlete and a model human. Cheers, Iron Horse.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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