I confess. I don’t love baseball. It’s one of those things that I can take, or leave, in life. It’s not a great passion, or a priority. My family was, and still is, the exact opposite. Born in 1960, I grew-up surrounded by baseball fanatics. The kind who could sleep and eat the game, but never grow tired. We were, in our own way, classic All-Americans, from our hot dogs to our Cracker Jacks. My mother’s side was comprised of loyal, patiently waiting, Chicago Cubs fans. And my father’s side, lived for the St. Louis Cardinals. They were zealous, devoted followers of the Redbirds. Then, there was me — caught in the middle.
Don’t get me wrong. I like baseball. Being a female didn’t lessen my appreciation, for the sport. I enjoy watching a good game, every now and then. The kind that keeps you glued to the television … with the bases loaded … suspense mounting … and extra innings. The play-offs, and certainly the World Series, bring back fond memories of my childhood every year. On those crisp, autumn nights, we are all baseball fans; aren’t we? But when I think about baseball, I think beyond the diamond. And I always seem to think of New York (may my family forgive me). I think of the ability and courage of one certain Yankee — Lou Gehrig. He was truly a legend …
The “Iron Horse”, as he was affectionately called, seemed larger than life itself. He played over 2,100 consecutive games. A record that wasn’t broken until the mid-90s. And his tenacity was amazing. Gehrig played baseball, under any circumstance, including injuries. Every major league player dreams of going to the World Series, just once in their career. Lou played in six. He was the first athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties. Number One, in many ways. As I said, a legend. But it was his fight off of the field that earned my deepest admiration.
In 1938, Lou Gehrig started to slip physically. The athlete who had made baseball look so easy was fumbling, as he laced his shoes. By the Spring of ’39, he was in Mayo Clinic. There, at the age of 36, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). His professional career in baseball was over. And a new fight had begun. One that he fought daily, until he succumbed (1941). In the years that followed, ALS became more commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” — a reminder that Chronic illness can strike any of us.
ALS is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease. There are two types: Sporadic and Familial. Sporadic is the most common, accounting for 90-95% of all cases that are diagnosed in the United States. Military veterans are twice as likely to be diagnosed, compared to the general population. Although, to date, the medical community hasn’t been able to determine why.
Patients with ALS may lose the ability to speak, move, eat and breathe. Their lives are altered, by the disease. While each case is different, the challenge is the same. A lot has been accomplished in medicine, since 1941. But there is still no cure. Yet, patients are now better equipped to manage ALS. And that is key. Many patients have a better quality of life, by participating in support groups. They stay socially active. They reap the benefits of occupational and physical therapy. They learn to live in the moment. Life expectancy with ALS has increased, since Gehrig was diagnosed. Today, 20% of all patients will live five years or more. An estimated 10% will live for a decade, or longer. And 5% will live for 20+ years.
When I reflect on the life of Lou Gehrig, I see the whole picture — not just baseball. I see the quiet and unassuming man. Husband. Son. I see the tenacious spirit who refused to let his condition deter him. I see the man who went from professional sports to working with prison inmates. As a member of New York City’s Parole Board, Gehrig was helping others to transition in life — to start over. And he took that job, seriously. Through his illness, he understood the fear and the challenge. He turned a negative into a positive. Gehrig was the kind of individual who squeezed every drop from life and savored it. We should all, sick or well, heed that lesson. Lou truly lived. And how he lived remains an inspiration.
*Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash