Lou Gehrig's Disease - Motor Neuron Disease - Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
Thought it had been cured by now? Still no known cause. Still no cure. Still quickly fatal. Still outrageous.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Lou Gehrig's Last Home Run

In this morning's Wall Street Journal, the wonderful Gehrig biographer, Jonathan Eig, writes of Lou Gehrig's last home run 70 years ago. It's a baseball and Gehrig student's fondest memory of Yankee Stadium. Lou played the entire 1938 season and the Yankees swept the World Series. It wasn't until the 1939 season that Lou took himself out of the lineup and gave us his farewell.

For those who have any interest in ALS or baseball, it's worth picking up a copy of the paper this morning. Jonathan Eig has a wonderful understanding of a ballplayer he never met in person and the haunting disease that stole him from us. He gives insight into ALS at a time when baseball and Yankee Stadium will be in the news. It's an excellent awareness tool. How can a disease like this go on for 70 years? An excerpt...
That year, Gehrig played with advanced symptoms of a brutal and deadly disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known today as Lou Gehrig's disease. He not only appeared in every one of the Yankees' 157 regular-season games, he played brilliantly, hitting .295, with 29 homers, 114 runs batted in, a .410 on-base average, and a .523 slugging percentage. Alex Rodriguez this year has produced roughly equivalent numbers.

Throughout the entire season, Gehrig knew something was wrong with his body; he just didn't know what. He arrived in St. Petersburg for spring training after filming a singing-cowboy movie called "Rawhide" (check it out on Netflix; it's a hoot). He entered the season as the highest-paid player in the game, with a one-year contract for $39,000, and saying that he thought his body, always the game's most solid, ought to hold at least a few more years. He was 34 and had played for 13 years without missing a game. His first swings of spring were feeble. He popped a few high and dribbled some into the dirt before his hands began to ache. "I'll get the feel of this thing in a hurry," he told a reporter that day. He never did, though. All that spring he felt clumsy. He tripped. He dropped easy throws. He developed blisters and bone bruises on his hands, and began taping foam to the bottom of
his bat handle to reduce the pain. In hindsight, all of these are likely symptoms of ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, shutting down messages from the brain to the body's muscles. Most victims survive only two or three years after diagnosis. Gehrig's muscles were withering away. As he tried to compensate, he probably squeezed the bat more tightly than usual, causing the blisters and bruises.

Most people with ALS don't know they have it for the first year. At this moment, there are about 5,000 people in the United States walking around without a clue. A year or so from now, when they are diagnosed, they will look back and say, "Oh, yeah, so that's why I had trouble with the belt on my son's car seat." Gehrig was no different -- except that he was a professional athlete who was being watched and criticized every day. Nevertheless, he kept going. What else could he do? He assumed the malfunctions were a result of age, or a virus, or perhaps his imagination. By late April, reporters were commenting that Gehrig seemed to have lost strength. Maybe he should have been working out instead of cavorting all winter in Hollywood, sportswriters sniped. His manager, Joe McCarthy, moved him out of the cleanup spot in the batting order into the sixth position.

Though his body was growing weaker by the day, Gehrig was so well-conditioned and so gifted an athlete that he managed to adapt. He started slapping at the ball instead of trying to crush it, and his batting average climbed. He put in an order with Hillerich & Bradsby Co. for some lighter bats, which helped him regain some of his power.

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