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Luckiest Man

by Jonathan Eig

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Luckiest Man by Jonathan Eig
Gehrig was on of the few players to go on record against baseball's segregation. He stated publicly, "There is no room in baseball for discrimination. It is our national pastime and a game for all." For his part, he played in many interracial games, either as exhibitions or during barnstorming days.

In 1932, Gehrig finally overcame his inordinate shyness and began to court Eleanor Grace Twitchell. In many ways she was his opposite, a party-goer, a drinker, a serious poker player, and a serious drinker. She was to have a profound influence on his career. She stuck by him when he was sick and worked toward a cure for ALS. Eleanor interpreted her role as Gehrig's "manager, agent, and promoter" to the extent that she introduced herself as Mrs. Lou Gehrig. This was not subservient; rather, it was an effort to ensure that his name stayed in the public's eye in every instance. She was successful, for example, in convincing Gehrig to park his car near the main entrance to Yankee Stadium and sign autographs. In 1934, Gehrig was the first athlete to appear on a Wheaties box.

They were married by the mayor of New Rochelle on September 29, 1933. No one was there. His mother was not happy, and never did come to like Eleanor. After the wedding, Gehrig played a baseball game. His mother, but not his father, came to the reception that night; bully though she was, she behaved herself. Bill Dickey, the great catcher, was the only Yankee teammate invited and present. Marriage was a bigger step for Gehrig than for most. Not only did he have to overcome nearly pathological shyness and emotional distance, he had to "divorce" (his word) his mother and stand up to her displeasure.

Gehrig began to lose strength in 1938, when he was not quite 35 years old. He was chosen for the All-Star game primarily on sentiment. He was now trying to get hits, not homeruns. By July reporters began to notice a difference, yet in August, when the Yankees played an astounding 36 games in 31 days, Gehrig raised his average to over .300 through sheer force of will and hard work. Over the course of the season, he ordered ever lighter bats, dropping from 37 ounces to 33.5 trying to compensate for slower and weaker hands. His first customized bat in 1924 had weighed an incredible 40 ounces!

His "clumsiness" got worse over the winter. The first doctor diagnosed a gall bladder problem, and Gehrig felt he would get better with a little rest. The 1939 exhibition season was a disaster. Had he not had a glorious history with the Yankees he would have been cut in spring training. The Iron Horse was rusting away at an ever-increasing rate. And, he was suffering because he knew he was hurting the team.

In Detroit on May 2, 1939, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, and Babe Dahlgren took his place after 2,130 games. The Iron Horse knew he was nearly finished as a player, and he was not willing to hurt the team. He played only one more game, on June 12, against the Yankee's AA Kansas City farm team. He played three innings, made 2 errors and was knocked down by a line drive into his glove. He was truly finished. He was soon at the Mayo Clinic where after a week of tests, he learned that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Only a few people knew the extent of his illness, and the word did not get out. Throughout his debilitating illness he remained positive and, until near the end, told people, including his doctors, that he was getting better.

The illness progressed rapidly after his retirement. He soon became bedridden, but Eleanor ensured that his former teammates and sportswriters came by to talk baseball. Just after 10:00 p.m. on June 2, 1941, surrounded by Eleanor and her mother, his parents and a doctor, Gehrig died. His parents soon faded from view. Eleanor never remarried. She carried on the fight against ALS for the rest of her life, dying in 1984, age 80. She was cremated and buried beside her husband.

Jonathan Eig has revealed an honest portrait of a very human Lou Gehrig. It pulls no punches, though Gehrig was so straight arrow there were almost no punches to throw, a clear difference from so many of today's baseball stars. In the notes, Eig says, "Nothing here is invented or interpreted. I have taken no literary liberties." Luckiest Man is a great baseball biography.

Gehrig was a quiet, shy man. He believed that hard work would triumph, a belief that failed only in his battle against ALS. His courage and fortitude were never more clearly demonstrated as in the manner in which he faced death. Give Eig the last word: "ALS is a disease of weakness, but Lou Gehrig's disease is associated with strength - the strength of a stricken man who said he felt lucky."
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