SI Vault
Double Legacy of the IRON HORSE
David Noonan
April 04, 1988
Lou Gehrig left his mark on baseball—and his name on a dread disease
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April 04, 1988

Double Legacy Of The Iron Horse

Lou Gehrig left his mark on baseball—and his name on a dread disease

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The spinal cord: a rope of nervous tissue no thicker than a fat pencil carries the constant two-way rush of impulses that make movement and sensation possible; a direct extension of the brain runs down through the jointed bones of the spinal column and forms the perfect center of our neatly bifurcated bodies; bundles of nerves woven in a blinking braid about 17 inches long innervate the corpus, and the mind and body are one.

Hitting a baseball: Concentration, coordination, balance, timing and strength merge in a standard American burst of energy; the familiar act is repeated thousands of times each year by everyone from the toddler in the backyard to the major leaguer on national TV who casually steps out of the batter's box to adjust his cup and then steps back in and drills one; in a series of anatomic and molecular events that show the spinal cord at its best, all the amazing and routinely overlooked elements of movement are on display when the batter takes a swing.

Incurable disease: The patient emerges from a maze of diagnostic tests and examinations as a member of a doomed minority, cut out of the population by his own faulty chemistry; the body gradually gives way under the unyielding pressure of the bad details; the disease is a force of nature, and the neurologist has no treatment to offer.

Fate: The loop of events that define a human life is transformed from the mysterious to the inevitable by the application of this timeless concept; for believers, the hot finger of God himself touches every moment; it has been said that we get the one we deserve.

Irony: Something that seems all wrong at first seems just right upon reflection, and that funny extra thing is the ironic part; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Lou Gehrig lived the kind of life millions of American men have dreamed about, a life of spectacular accomplishment on the baseball field. It was an exciting life, filled with home runs and World Series games and shared with such fellow New York Yankee legends as Babe Ruth, Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bill Dickey and Joe DiMaggio. It was a rare life, a long dream of summer that stretched on, hit after hit, game after game, season after season. Gehrig's greatest record, the feat that defined him as a man and as a ballplayer, was a matter of endurance and consistency—he played in 2,130 consecutive major league games over a span of 15 seasons. To the fans of the day it must have seemed that Gehrig would play forever, that his phenomenal strength and skills would always keep his name in the sports pages. Surely he was the man who would one day possess a whole string of records as the oldest this and the oldest that—the oldest player to win the batting title, the oldest to be named MVP. But it didn't work out that way.

The life that so many envied, that great life playing ball under the sun, had a proportional strain of tragedy quietly hissing at its core. Gehrig's motor neurons degenerated, and he was gone. The end was as fast and mysterious as the career was long and simple (simple in the way the game is simple, the way a curve ball is simple, if you ignore the physics). When he lay dying at the age of 37, just two years after his illness was diagnosed, the Iron Horse was weaker and more helpless than an infant, unable even to swallow a mouthful of water. He left a double legacy, as a baseball hero and as the victim of a strange and terrible disease. The greatest first baseman of all time wound up as a landmark case in the annals of neurology.

Though he died a comparatively young man, just shy of his 38th birthday, Gehrig has for several reasons always seemed older. For one thing, he was a ballplayer, and 37 is old for an athlete. Also, from the vantage point of the late '80s, newsreel footage of Gehrig and his teammates has an ancient look to it. The flickering shades of gray age everyone. The styles of the day are also a factor. In his baggy wool uniforms Gehrig looks like a hulking middle-aged man instead of a strong athlete. And the consecutive-game streak contributes to the sense we have of him as an ancient—anyone who played in all those games must have been old.

But Gehrig was not old, and to understand and appreciate what happened to him we have to keep that in mind. We have to picture him as he actually was—young and in color, one of the fittest members of his generation, out there every day playing baseball on green grass, under blue skies. We have to think of his incredible streak of games not as an insurmountable statistical mountain, a monolithic thing, but as many smaller things, as individual games, each complete unto itself. We have to think of them as 2,130 separate events—2,130 opportunities for Lou Gehrig to enjoy himself and play his game. And what a game it was.

Gehrig was a local boy all of his life. He was born June 19, 1903, in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, a heavily German neighborhood that included part of what is now known as the Upper East Side. When he was four, the family moved to Washington Heights at the northern tip of Manhattan. The farthest he ever lived from Yankee Stadium was Larchmont, a suburb less than three miles north of the New York City line.

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