- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

Lou Gehrig paired with Babe Ruth to lead some of the greatest baseball teams ever,

the New York Yankees of the late 1920s and 1930s. Ruth had the color but Gehrig had the statistics. The Yankee first baseman had 13 consecutive seasons in which he scored 100 runs or more and batted in another 100 or more. His .361 batting average in seven World Series led the Yankees to six titles in a 13-year period. In 1934 he won the “triple crown,” leading the American League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in.

Today the Yankee slugger is also remembered for having been struck down late in his career by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now widely called Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a progressive deterioration of the nervous system that leads to paralysis and death. At the age of 36, Gehrig went from being a star athlete to a wheelchair-bound paraplegic who could scarcely swallow or speak.

Sports biography is fraught with peril, for authors are often dependant on the memories of teammates, and tread a thin line between objective narrative and hagiography. But in Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig (Simon & Schuster, $26, 397 pp., ), journalist Jonathan Eig has provided a balanced account of Gehrig’s life, athletic achievements, and above all, his gallant, losing battle with ALS.

In the first half of the last century, before pro football took over, baseball was “America’s game.” In the author’s words, “The same brawny men who forged steel, built outhouses, and swept the streets through the winter turned to baseball in spring, hoping for a shot at wealth and glory.” Lou Gehrig, the husky, handsome offspring of German immigrants, was one of them. He attended Columbia University where he starred in baseball and attracted the attention of the New York Yankees.

Manager Miller Huggins gradually worked Gehrig into his lineup in 1923, and the next year he became a fixture at first base. Gehrig was a natural hitter but he took nothing for granted.

According to Mr. Eig, “No one prepared better for a game, no one stayed in better condition, and no one hustled harder on the field.” Personally reserved, Gehrig gained the respect rather than the friendship of most of his teammates. But in tandem with Ruth, he made the Yankees the most feared team of their generation.

Gehrig had played in more than 2,100 consecutive games for the Yankees-each game extended his record another notch-when he was struck down early in the 1939 season by the disease that would bear his name. It manifested itself on the diamond, where he began to make fielding errors, and where line drives no longer left his bat like bullets. Gehrig took himself out of the lineup and went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, New York, for tests. The tests established that he had contracted ALS, and the doctors told him there was no cure. Today there is still no cure.

Back in New York, Lou’s family physician encouraged him to believe that vitamins might cure his condition. Meanwhile, the Yankees planned a “day” for Gehrig, but strangely scheduled it in connection with a doubleheader in Washington rather than New York.

Public relations was in its infancy in 1939, and Mr. Eig had to do considerable research to piece together Gehrig’s gracious acknowledgment on that occasion. In it, Gehrig rejected any suggestion of self-pity.

Paying tribute to his teammates, his wife, Eleanor, the fans and even sportswriters, the stricken Gehrig called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Two years later he was dead.

This fine book tells us much about Gehrig. Alas, it is also a reminder of how few of our contemporary sports heroes share the modesty and work ethic of the Yankee slugger.

John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (Knopf, $30, 549 pages,). Whew! That John Brown must have been a busy man, particularly inasmuch as he also found time to father 20 children by two wives.

In his preface, author David S. Reynolds explains that he doesn’t mean his subtitle to be taken literally. “John Brown? did not end American slavery,” he concedes, but he then goes on to quote a contemporary as declaring that Brown had “loosened the roots of the slave system.”

The main events of Brown’s life are not in dispute. Raised on the Ohio frontier, Brown was in turn a laborer, a tanner, a land speculator, and a dealer in sheep. His career prior to 1855 was marked by business failures, lawsuits, and debt. But Brown was sustained by his Calvinist religion. He told his less devout children of his hope that they might “through the infinite mercy of God? be brought to see the error of [their] ways.”

Brown grew up hating slavery. Not simply an abolitionist, he was an abolitionist who believed in violence, and Kansas—the scene of guerrilla fighting between pro- and antislavery factions—provided him with a stage. In 1855 Brown personally led an attack on a proslavery settlement in which his raiders killed five settlers. The massacre at Pottawatomie was considered an atrocity even by Kansas standards.

Brown returned to the East one jump ahead of the law. Many abolitionists sought to distance themselves from Brown, but Mr. Reynolds will not cast the first stone. “The most positive way to view? Brown’s crimes,” he writes, “is to regard them as? ‘good terrorism’—that is, terrorism justified by obvious social injustice.”

Backed by wealthy parlor liberals in the North, Brown next undertook a wild plan to establish a free state for escaped slaves and other blacks in the mountains of Virginia and Maryland. He chose Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, as a promising base for future operations, and assembled a small force—including three of his sons—on a farm nearby.

On the night of Oct. 16, 1859, Brown’s 21-man “army” succeeded in capturing the U.S. Army arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. They held it for a day against local militia, but on October 18 a force of marines commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee stormed Brown’s defenses in the engine house of the armory. Tried for treason, Brown was convicted and executed on December 2.

Brown’s raid polarized the country as no other event had. To the South, long fearful of a slave insurrection, the fact of the raid was bad enough; the praise for Brown in many parts of the North made the sections seem incompatible.

Mr. Reynolds has done a remarkable amount of research, and manages to make even Brown’s failed business ventures interesting. He is, however, curiously loath to pass judgment on his subject. He discourses at length on the various interpretations of Brown over the years. (“It was no accident that the most negative portraits of Brown came during the years between 1880 and 1950, a time when Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan ruled in the South.”) In contrast, he quotes the favorable references to Brown by black leaders such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois.

Readers are left to find John Brown for themselves.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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