Thursday, March 13, 2008

"The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth"

Watching Ken Burns's excellent 10-part PBS series on "Baseball" so enriched my appreciation of the game. But no scene in the history of baseball captured my attention quite like the ending of the decade of the 30's and the abrupt end of the career of Lou Gehrig.

Occasionally, a book comes along that grabs one by the heart and doesn't let go. Such was the case with me in reading Jonathan Eig's gripping biography that became a New York Times Bestseller on the Iron Horse. Eig's recap of Gehrig's life, coupled with some ten chapters devoted to his battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease), is simply captivating.

While recognized for his consistency -- Gehrig held the steak for the longest consecutive games played at 2,130 until surpassed by Cal Ripken, Jr. in 1995 -- Gehrig often played second fiddle. He hit fourth in the vaunted Yankee lineup for years behind the more popular Babe Ruth. Then when Ruth was sent away to the Boston Braves, Gehrig was upstaged in popularity and charisma by the up-and-coming new face of the franchise, a rookie from San Francisco named Joe DiMaggio.

Yet, upon his forced retirement from the game because of deteriorating health, Gehrig's number 4 was the first number in baseball history to be retired and the normal wait for his enshrinement into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was waved.

"If Gehrig had played on until the age of forty-two, he quite possibly could have rewritten the game's record books, according to Bill James, the baseball statistician and writer. James calculates that Gehrig would have finished his career with 689 home runs (more than anyone but Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and *Barry Bonds*); 3,928 hits (third after Pete Rose and Cobb); 2,879 runs batted in (almost 600 more than today's record, held by Aaron); 2,475 walks (a number no one has ever reached); and a lifetime batting average of .330" (222).

Gehrig's true charm, though, has to be his consistency in the face of the unsurmountable disease that would claim his life, captured best in his famed speech delivered on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. Between games of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators, Gehrig declared:

"For the past two weeks, you've been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." He then spent time counting his blessings, all those things that caused him to deem himself lucky, before closing with, "I might have had a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for."

Richards Vidmer of the Herald-Tribune captured the impact of Gehrig's famous speech with this summary:

"Throughout Lou Gehrig's career there was always the feeling he lacked that mystical something called color. Perhaps he did. And yet now that his playing days are over he has more color than almost any athlete in the game. Somehow I felt that at the Stadium yesterday they were honoring not a great baseball player but a truly great sportsman who could take his triumphs with sincere modesty and could face tragedy with a smile. His records will attest to future generations that Lou Gehrig was one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived, but only those who have been fortunate enough to have known him during his most glorious years will realize that he stood for something finer than merely a great baseball player -- that he stood for everything that makes sports important in the American scene" (Eig, 318).

Gehrig wasn't perfect. But he was a man of determination and grace in the face of his "bad break."