Along with Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, Lou Gehrig is among an elite order of baseball players who slipped the bounds of the game and altered the world outside its lines. As Cal Ripken (page 56) eclipses Gehrig's most famous accomplishment, it's worth recollecting that Gehrig's consecutive-game streak ended for only one reason: The Iron Horse was suffering from a fatal disease.
We can never know how many games Gehrig might have played had he not been struck down, 17 days before his 38th birthday, by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an illness that results in complete muscular deterioration and for which there is still no known cure. Today some A 5,000 new cases of Lou Gehrig's disease, as ALS has come to be known, are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Victims, who have included Senator Jacob Javits and jazz musician Charles Mingus, usually die within two to five years.
The disease is believed to be the only one that has taken a victim's name, and ALS counselors and researchers invoke the late Hall of Famer whenever they can. "It lends a valuable humanness to the disease," says Nancy Nelson, a spokes-woman for The ALS Association in Woodland Hills, Calif. Shirts and baseballs bearing Gehrig's likeness have generated thousands of dollars for research on the disease, and a support group for children of ALS victims is called Gehrig's Kids.
No number of consecutive games played can make a man heroic the way a dignified confrontation with impending death can. Thirty-six and dying, Gehrig stood before a capacity crowd at Yankee Stadium and called himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." That's what he'll be remembered for, long after the phrase " Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game streak" falls out of the lexicon.
Two years ago John McEnroe ripped fellow commentator Mary Carillo, with whom he grew up in Douglaston, N.Y., and won the 1977 French Open mixed doubles title, saying she isn't as qualified as a man to comment on men's tennis. Last week he refused to let that nonissue die, reiterating the sentiments. That Carillo is widely considered the best broadcaster in tennis seems to drive McEnroe crazy enough that he has tried to get her banned from the booth when women aren't playing. To its credit, CBS at first refused to hire McEnroe, breaking off negotiations after he delivered a diatribe against Carillo and refused to work women's matches. But last spring CBS and McEnroe came to terms, and lately he has had to suffer the indignity of sharing a booth with Carillo at the U.S. Open. Perhaps that's why he popped off to USA Today's Rudy Martzke last week. "The bottom line is, she's scared she'll lose her job," he said. "If she can keep up with me, fine."
McEnroe's comments recall an incident at Wimbledon in 1981: During a doubles match against India's Amritraj brothers, he stared truculently at a dark-skinned linesman in a turban whom he would go on to accuse of being "biased." That same year, during a tournament at London's Queens Club, he cursed and hit a ball at a lineswoman and berated umpire Georgina Clark so violently that his opponent, Brian Gottfried, was moved to go to the net and say, "Hey, let her alone."
It's a relief that the slack routinely cut McEnroe the player, on the grounds that he was tortured or misunderstood or some other sorry subspecies of tennis "genius," can be withheld now that he's just another blazer in the booth.
No. 10 Al Downing Street
Former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn's suggestion last week that Margaret Thatcher be given the job he once held got us wondering: How would Britain's first female prime minister rule baseball? Not just ironhandedly but evenhandedly, too, we concluded. The owners would likely prove to be no problem for a woman who spent 11 years bullying powerful men in Parliament. And forget the union, Jack: Thatcher never gave Labour any quarter.