Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. But who was Lou Gehrig and how did his life impact awareness about the disease?
Henry Louis Gehrig was born in New York, June 19, 1903, at a time when very few people were aware of ALS, the progressive and neurodegenerative disease. Gehrig grew up to become a great American athlete, having played first base for 17 years with the New York Yankees. But it was his death at the age of 37 from ALS that made the man a worldwide, household name.
Lou Gehrig’s parents were German immigrants who traveled to New York to find the American dream. Christina Gehrig worked as housemaid and Heinrich Gehrig, in poor health, jumped from job to job. Their marriage generated four children, but only Lou Gehrig survived. An outstanding athlete in football and baseball, Lou Gehrig landed a football scholarship Columbia University where he studied engineering.
Meanwhile, Gehrig’s pitching skills also stood out, gaining him the nickname “Columbia Lou” among his peers. In 1923, he met with success when he was recruited to play for the New York Yankees, where, playing alongside Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, he was dubbed “Iron Horse.” Numerous foot, hand and back injuries did not deter him.
“Iron Horse” had an impressive career: He had a lifetime batting average of .340 and is one of only seven Major League players with more than 100 extra-base hits in a season. In 1934, Gehrig won the much sought-after “Triple Crown,” leading the league in RBIs, home runs, and batting average. His triumphs on the field helped lead the Yankees to win six World Series championships.
Everything changed for Lou Gehrig in 1938. His athletic capacities began to decline and eventually he found it difficult tying his shoe laces. A year later, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. diagnosed Lou Gehrig with ALS. The same year, the athlete retired becoming a symbol for the disease.
On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig’s team gathered in the Yankee stadium with his friends and fans to honor him. That day, Lou Gehrig gave an inspiring speech that is considered the most famous speech in American sports history.
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you,” he said. “Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.”
Gehrig’s considered himself blessed.
“When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know. So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”
Less than two years later, on June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig died in his sleep, in his New York home, at the age of 37.
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