I was crushed, distraught, and disconsolate when I realized that the book I have had on reserve at the library for about two months was still not in and I had nothing else in mind to read. So shattered (well, maybe that’s a bit much, but let’s go with the drama) I was left to wander through the stacks without a plan, hoping to get lucky and find something good. And wonder of wonders, I did—in the biography section, I spotted Jonathan Eig’s Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. I remembered when this book came out a few years ago—it had been well-received and I had filed it away under Oh Yeah, I Should Get to That Someday, and now here was Someday. It seemed just right—after all, I like baseball, I like reading about the ‘20s and ‘30s, and also I recently read Eig’s book about Jackie Robinson, Opening Day, and was pleased with that. (Dear Mr. Eig, I have apparently run through your entire repertoire. The good news is it took less time than reading Proust. The bad news is, well, I guess you should get to work on something else.)
Gehrig is interesting for, odd as it may sound, his lack of interestingness. One of the main themes of the book is how Gehrig, despite his tremendous on-field achievements was always overshadowed by others, notably Ruth at the beginning of Gehrig’s career and DiMaggio at the end. Gehrig’s numbers were equal to or greater than theirs in various categories but they both had more magnetic personalities and a knack for exploiting the big moment that Gehrig never had. In a way, he was doomed by his consistency; his steady production should have been a virtue but he performed in such a workmanlike manner that it was easy to overlook him after a while. That he became defined by his streak of games started is both odd and a little sad (well, to me at least)—Gehrig contributed hits at key moments, produced RBIs, and fielded his position well, but today he is most famous for just showing up every day.
Whether Gehrig resented this lack of attention—lack, that is, in comparison to Ruth and DiMaggio—is unclear. He was an extremely reticent man, one whom his teammates would probably say they never really got to know. He grew up poor in New York City and led a rather sheltered life dominated by his fiercely protective mother. But when you are an extremely shy person, the type for whom speaking is almost unbearable, you have to find something that you can do that will help you get by in life, that helps you deal with people you can barely look in the eye. For Gehrig, that one thing was sports. He had the talent and the work ethic to succeed. He was proud of his accomplishments, but also dedicated to the idea of team. With that, and his natural tendency to privacy, it’s easy to believe that he didn’t care about recognition or about being the big star. I don’t know, though. I think that when athletes are young, they believe that they will be recognized for what they do, that all good things will come if they just keep on doing everything right, but as they get older and start to see the clock on their careers run down, they begin to get a little nervous, to get a “wait, what about me?” feeling. Some suddenly feel the lack of a championship and spend their latter years trying to latch onto a sure winner; others fear that years of success in a low profile market is killing their hall of fame credentials and gamble that being a role player on a big-name team will finally get them attention. Gehrig had championships to spare; so did Ruth, so did DiMaggio. Gehrig hit homeruns by the dozen and knocked in runs that won games; so did Ruth, so did DiMaggio. But he also had the consecutive games streak; Ruth had no desire for it and DiMaggio didn’t appear to have the health for it. When asked about it, Gehrig always said he just loved to play the game, he was glad to have this job, he wouldn’t want to miss a game when he could contribute to winning a pennant. I’m sure all of this was true, but he also recognized that this record was what set him apart from the others.
All the baseball information and game accounts are handled well, as is the material about Gehrig’s personal life—such that it was. Gehrig lived with his parents until he was about thirty, rarely dated, and had most potential relationships snuffed out by his mother. When he did marry, it was not to some sweet, homebody type. Eleanor Twitchell was an aging party girl with strong survival instincts, who had the grit to stand up to Gehrig’s mother and take on the fierce protector role herself. You get the impression that they were the type of couple where at first glance you think to yourself, “Huh? How did that happen?” but then upon getting to know them change your thought to, “Oh, I get it.”
I was most interested, though, in the parts of the book that dealt with the onset of Gehrig’s ALS and his search for understanding of the disease that afflicted him. Eig gives a nice mini-medical history and a fascinating portrait of the medical community of the time. It’s most astonishing to me to see both the tremendous advances and lack of progress that has taken place in this age of scientific leaps and bounds. In the 1930s, neurology was barely a field of study, with only one or two textbooks and few true specialists. Now, though, neurology has come so far that in my recent, futile attempts to buy some more time for my dog, I was able to take her to a veterinary neurologist who could examine her with equipment that far, far outreached anything doctors could imagine in 1939. Yet at the same time, despite all the high-tech tools available, the money raised, the famous name attached to the disease, the prognosis for those with ALS isn’t any better now than it was in Gehrig’s day.
Eig describes Gehrig’s battle with the disease with grace. How strange it must all have been for Gehrig—the inexplicable loss of his strength and skill, the difficulty in acknowledging that anything really was wrong, the whispers about whether he had really suddenly lost it. What do you do when you suddenly can no longer do the one thing you’ve always done? Athletes are used to the idea that if they practice hard enough and work hard enough they will eventually solve the problem. When that no longer worked, Gehrig put the same effort into his fight to understand the disease. He searched out all the right doctors, did everything they told him to do, asked them all the questions—and maybe didn’t get the right answers. His doctors were unreasonably optimistic about his chances—whether this was unethical or not is not as clear as you would think. Little really was known about ALS and some may have thought there was always reason to hope. More likely, though, they knew the truth but believed that being positive would make life easier for Gehrig than being more candid about the inevitable, horrible outcome of the disease.
The other night, while the Yankees-White Sox game was in a rain delay that would eventually become a rainout, the fabled YES Network ran the Lou Gehrig Yankeeography (to be followed soon, we can only hope, by the Tyler Clippard Yankeeography). Of course I’ve seen clips of the Gehrig goodbye speech at Yankee Stadium many times, but they also showed film of other parts of the ceremony that I hadn’t seen, like Babe Ruth’s speech, the presentation of a trophy, etc. Seeing that, I noticed for the first time how very sick Gehrig looks, especially in comparison to the other film segments in the show from earlier days when he was in his prime. Yet at the time, few people realized what was going on; his teammates and fans thought that his career was over, but had no idea that he was dying, and that makes a sad moment only sadder.
As always, I have gone on too long, but in closing I will just say that I really enjoyed The Luckiest Man and was sorry to finish it, though I think some of this was just due to a desire to bury myself in another time and place. I would rank it very high on the list of baseball books I’ve read (sorry, not the top, and if you don’t know what that is, well, you just haven’t been paying attention) and recommend it to all who love such things.