- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2006

Tommy Henrich, the New York Yankees outfielder, and several sportswriters had traveled to suburban Larchmont, N.Y., to see the ailing former ballplayer. Years later, Henrich remembered the sad occasion.

“I’ll never forget what he said as we were going: ‘Goodbye, boys, nice of you to come out here. The doc says I’m going to be all right. He said I have to go downhill and hit rock bottom before I come back.’”

Retelling the story, Henrich recalled that the visitors exchanged uneasy glances.

“He knew,” Henrich said. “He knew.”

There would be no comeback. The ailing former ballplayer, of course, was Lou Gehrig, and he had an incredibly cruel, incredibly sad disease. A few weeks later, on June 2, 1941, he was dead of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known thereafter as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS was, and 65 years later remains, an insidious neurological killer that paralyzes a victim muscle by muscle until he or she no longer can even breathe, causing death by asphyxiation. No disease is more wrenching, because the person is fully aware of what is happening throughout and literally powerless to halt it.

Usually, ALS strikes people in their 50s or older — notable victims have included Sen. Jacob Javits, actor David Niven, heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles and star pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter — but Gehrig was just two weeks short of his 38th birthday when he died. Though there is no telling when or how he contracted it (the cause is still unknown), Gehrig saw his customarily awesome offensive production drop dramatically during the last half of the 1938 season. He finished it with a batting average of .295, 29 home runs and 114 RBI, piddling stuff compared with his numbers of .351, 37 and 159 a year earlier.

During the winter of 1938-39, Gehrig stumbled around his apartment and often fell down while ice skating, a favorite pastime. After he reported for spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., catcher and close friend Bill Dickey noticed that he dragged his feet when he walked. During exhibition games, he missed pitches constantly, grounded out softly when he did make contact and looked slow and awkward at first base. One day he toppled from the stool in front of his locker as he bent to tie his shoes.

Suddenly, Gehrig — this awesome slugger who had played in more than 2,100 consecutive games over 14 seasons with a career batting average of .340, a slugging average of .632, 493 home runs and 1,995 RBI — was as helpless as a baby. In the first eight games of the 1939 season, extending his record streak of games to 2,130, he had four soft singles in 28 at-bats. He never played in the major leagues again. Fifty-six years later, Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles broke the supposedly unbreakable record.

On May 2 in Detroit, Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy he was benching himself “for the good of the team.” A month later, he went to the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to learn what was wrong. The answer was the worst possible news. It was never announced whether Gehrig had been told his illness was terminal, but …

Later that summer, Gehrig was entering Yankee Stadium before a game when a group of young fans spotted him and began shouting, “Good luck, Lou!”

He smiled broadly, then turned to a companion and said, “They’re wishing me luck — and I’m dying.”

Gehrig lived for less than two years after delivering what amounts to baseball’s Gettysburg Address on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium, July 4: “Some people say I have been given a bad break, but today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

It was the most memorable speech, and the saddest day, of baseball’s first 130 years.

For the rest of the season, team captain Gehrig delivered the Yankees’ lineup to the umpires at home plate each day, shuffled uncertainly back to the dugout and watched his team win its fourth straight pennant and sweep the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Then he took off the pinstripes for good — his No. 4 was the first number retired by a major league team — and began work as a New York City parole officer, Soon this became too much for him, so he went home to await the inevitable.

“I’m getting better, right, doc?” he asked one of his physicians who was making a house call. But Lou winked when he said it. By this time, he had lost perhaps 80 of his 215 pounds. No longer could he stand, sit up or even smoke a cigarette without assistance. In May, his chest began to rise and fall more slowly, “like a great clock winding down,” his wife, Eleanor, recalled.

At 10 a.m. on June 2, he slipped into a coma. Some 12 hours later, Frank Graham recalled in his 1942 biography, “Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero,” he opened his eyes and saw family and friends gathered around his bed.

“He seemed surprised to see them, because they had not been there just a moment before,” Graham wrote. “And then, as though he had fallen asleep again, he died. Death had brought no pain, only bewilderment.”

The Yankees were playing in Detroit again, and as McCarthy stepped out of a cab, the manager of his hotel told him, “Gehrig died tonight.” Walking into the lobby, McCarthy saw his players gray and stunned. In his room, Dickey sobbed for his longtime roommate.

More than 1,500 telegrams of condolence arrived at the Gehrig home, and thousands of fans filed past his bier at Christ Episcopal Church in Riverdale, N.Y. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent flowers. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia ordered flags flown at half-mast throughout New York City. As a player, power, endurance and humility had characterized Gehrig. Now courage topped the list.

Two monumental individual feats marked the 1941 season: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams’ .406 batting average. But for many fans who had seen Gehrig batter down fences as Babe Ruth’s slugging cohort with the Yankees, the death of baseball’s Iron Horse superseded all else.

In his 1951 book, “The World Series and Highlights of Baseball,” Lamont Buchanan stated Lou Gehrig’s legacy very well: “To those who remember, the Yankees had one first baseman … and will never quite have another.”

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