Lou Gehrig Day special for Crew catcher

Brewers' backstop has lost grandmother, aunt to ALS

March 5th, 2021

As if rehabbing Brewers catcher Jacob Nottingham needed any more incentive to get healthy and make it back to the big leagues, MLB just announced an initiative close to his heart.

The league has declared June 2 “Lou Gehrig Day,” an annual, league-wide event to honor and celebrate the legacy of the Hall of Fame first baseman and to raise awareness and funds to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the awful disease that ended Gehrig’s life and informally bears his name.

For Nottingham, it’s a personal cause. He lost his grandmother and aunt to ALS and has a tattoo of them on his left arm with Gehrig looking down.

“I can't wait for that day,” Nottingham said. “It's going to be a big day for people across the country who are battling ALS, and it's going to be a special day for my family as well. So I mean, I hope I'm there.”

Nottingham has work to do to get there, and on multiple fronts.

First, he has to get healthy following surgery at the end of December to repair a torn ligament on the thumb of his catching hand, the result of receiving all of those nasty Brandon Woodruff fastballs, Corbin Burnes cutters and Justin Topa sliders -- the latter of which broke the strings of Nottingham’s catcher’s mitt not once but twice in the final week of last season. During the Brewers’ season-ending loss to the Dodgers in Game 2 of the National League Wild Card Series, Nottingham finally succumbed to pain that he had been fighting for a month.

Second, he has to play his way back to the big leagues. Nottingham has had tastes of the Majors in each of the past three seasons but he’s part of a crowded Brewers catching corps this spring.

He’s on a mission to make it.

In 2018, he reported to Spring Training with that big tattoo, the work of artist Wes Hogan of Artistic Element in Yucaipa, Calif. It depicts Gehrig over Nottingham’s grandmother, Nancy Nottingham, and aunt, Laurie Nottingham. Jacob surprised his dad with the finished product just before leaving for Phoenix. 

"It was special for my dad," Jacob Nottingham said in 2018. "He lost his mom at a very young age and he lost his sister. I have two older brothers and we look up to my dad a lot. It's special because our family is so into sports."

Nottingham was a freshman in high school when the disease took his Aunt Laurie, and he was moved to meet others affected by the disease when he played for the Brewers’ Double-A affiliate in Biloxi when the team hosted an ALS awareness night at the ballpark. That experience has stuck with him.

"I feel like I'm part of that family," he said.

Nottingham saw progress just this week. He has been a limited participant in camp, sitting in on meetings with Brewers pitchers and catchers to stay up to speed on who is working on what, but he had not been cleared to hit until Thursday, when he took batting practice against hitting coach Andy Haines. Next week, Nottingham expects to progress on the defensive side by catching high-velocity pitches from a machine.

He’s looking up at Omar Narváez and Manny Piña on the Brewers’ catching depth chart, and over the winter, the Brewers signed free agent Luke Maile. Unlike Nottingham, Maile has an option and can be shuttled between the Majors and the alternate training site or the Minor Leagues. Sometimes, out-of-options players like Nottingham are playing in Spring Training for their own teams and the 29 other clubs, some of whom could have an opening late in camp.

“We actually talked with the trainers today about how it's going to progress and putting together a schedule,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He's had more catching problems, really, than hitting, so I think we'll be able to go a little faster with the hitting and that's actually a good thing. That's going to speed up his back-on-the-field, ready-to-go time because we are going to be able to work into more aggressive hitting progressions. It's all good news.”

Of getting Nottingham ready by Opening Day, Counsell said, “I think there's still enough time. He's an example of a player that the schedule's going to get a little bit tighter, but I think there's enough time still.”

Nottingham now has extra incentive to make it happen.

“This offseason was a little crazy,” said Nottingham, who became a father on Dec. 14 with the birth of Aiden Blaise Nottingham, “but I just recovered, tried to get ready. I’m doing anything I can to get my body ready.”