ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) has been a huge subject in the public eye lately.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has swept the nation and I know a lot of people are growing tired of the endless videos on social media and constant bombardment of this goofy fad. In many ways, we are a narcissistic society. We do things for selfish reasons and like lemmings, follow along with something to be accepted.
In this case that’s not a bad thing.
So what does this have to do with sports? Well, it’s the story of the most famous person to suffer from ALS, the namesake of the disease – Lou Gehrig.
Many people know who Gehrig was; he played with Babe Ruth on the New York Yankees, but he was much more than that. He is arguably the greatest first baseman in baseball history and the epitome of consistency in sports. That is until ALS zapped his strength, his stamina and his life.
ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It is debilitating, causing sufferers to lose their motor skills and can eventually result in paralysis and ultimately death. The sick part of this disease is it doesn’t deteriorate the mind; patients are completely coherent throughout their physical deterioration.
Gehrig retired from baseball on June 21, 1939, and as this column is published today, there is still no cure for this horrific disease.
As sports fans, we place our athletes upon pedestals and practically worship them as demigods. Gehrig was a premier demigod of his day. He was a career .340 hitter with 493 home runs and 1,995 RBIs from 1923-1939. Through that time he won two MVP awards, one batting title and a triple crown in 1934. He also played in seven World Series with the Yanks, winning six of them.
His biggest accomplishment, though, earned him his nickname “Iron Horse.” On June 2, 1925, Gehrig replaced Wally Pipp in the New York lineup, where he remained every day until May 2, 1939. It was 2,130 consecutive games, a league record that stood until Sept. 6, 1995.
The humble Gehrig yanked himself from the lineup that fateful day in ‘39, stating it was the best thing for the team. He had played through broken bones, severe back pain and many other nicks and bruises, but it was the destructive ALS that took him down.
He went to the Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed with ALS. It was publicly released two days before his retirement was announced.
Just three seasons before Gehrig had smacked a league-high 49 home runs and won his second MVP, he was forced into retirement at age 36 after playing just eight games and hitting zero home runs.
On Jan. 2, 1940, he began his next career when he was sworn in to work for the New York Parole Commission, interviewing prisoners up for parole. His wife, Eleanor, drove him to work every day, stayed with him during his interviews and eventually helped him when he lost the use of his hands.
By the end of 1940, Gehrig was forced to work from home as he became weaker and by early 1941, he was bedridden and had difficulty even controlling his facial muscles.
He finally succumbed to ALS on June 2, 1941. It was 16 years to the day the Iron Horse replaced Pipp in the Yankees lineup.
The Gehrig story is just one of many for people who suffer from ALS, so as far as the Ice Bucket Challenge goes, maybe it is silly and a little annoying, but it has raised nearly $100 million for this disease.
I gave in and did it. I poured a bucket of ice over my head and donated $20 and loaded a video on my Facebook page. And if I’m being brutally honest, I wouldn’t have donated if it wasn’t for this goofy trend, so I’m a narcissistic lemming just like everybody else.
Let the Ice Bucket Challenge bring out the philanthropist in you. Maybe there is another illness searching for cures and funds for research that affects you on a more personal level? Maybe you can help get people involved in fund-raising?
And remember Lou Gehrig, because these illnesses don’t care how humble, strong or athletic their victims may be — anybody is at risk.