Lou Gehrig, the man who was once a permanent fixture in the New York Yankees lineup, now has a permanent place on the Major League calendar.
June 2 will hereby be known as “Lou Gehrig Day,” Major League Baseball announced Thursday. The annual, league-wide event will be a time not only to honor and celebrate the legacy of the Hall of Fame first baseman but to raise awareness and funds to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the awful disease that ended Gehrig’s life and informally bears his name.
“Major League Baseball is thrilled to celebrate the legacy of Lou Gehrig, whose humility and courage continue to inspire our society,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “While ALS has been closely identified with our game since Lou’s legendary career, the pressing need to find a cure remains. We look forward to honoring all the individuals and families, in baseball and beyond, who have been affected by ALS and hope Lou Gehrig Day advances efforts to defeat this disease.”
On Lou Gehrig Day, all players, managers and coaches will wear a special uniform patch, with red “4-ALS” (the logo bearing Gehrig’s retired uniform number with the Yanks) wristbands available to be worn in-game. Additional ceremonial details for each home park that day will be announced at a later date.
Gehrig joins Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente as the only players to have a day reserved in their honor across MLB. The June 2 date is significant in Gehrig’s story both as the day he became the Yankees’ regular first baseman in 1925 (replacing starter Wally Pipp, who famously asked out of the lineup because of a headache) and, sadly, as the day Gehrig passed away, in 1941, roughly two years after he was diagnosed with ALS.
Often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, ALS is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Those afflicted lose their ability to walk, talk, eat and, eventually, breathe. ALS can affect anyone, anywhere, at any time, and, while scientists are making some strides in understanding the disease and there are several potential treatments in late-stage clinical trials, there is no cure.
According to the ALS Association, more than 5,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with ALS each year, with an average life expectancy of just two to five years.
Henry Louis Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS on his 36th birthday -- June 19, 1939 -- after months of uncharacteristically poor play and mysterious fatigue that forced him to pull himself out of the lineup on May 1, ending his then-record streak of 2,130 consecutive games played (since broken by Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995). After his diagnosis, Gehrig immediately retired from baseball with 493 home runs, 1,995 RBIs, 1,888 runs scored and a 1.080 OPS that ranks third all-time behind teammate Babe Ruth (1.164) and Ted Williams (1.115).
When the Yankees held the original “Lou Gehrig Day” on Independence Day at Yankee Stadium that year, Gehrig reluctantly stepped to the microphone and gave one of the most famous speeches in the history of professional sports.
“For the past two weeks, you have been reading about a bad break,” he told a rapt audience. “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”
Gehrig passed away less than two years later, but his legacy of grace in the face of such a daunting diagnosis has long outlived him and made him a celebrated figure. And for those afflicted or affected by ALS, what happened to baseball’s “Iron Horse” stands as an enduring reminder of how the disease can strike even the seemingly indefatigable.
While MLB has raised ALS funds through various initiatives -- including an annual Winter Meetings Charity Auction and the “MLB Fights ALS” campaign -- over the years, this will be the first concentrated day centered around this legend and this cause. A group known as the “Lou Gehrig Day Committee” -- a collection of individuals, family and friends affected by ALS -- campaigned to make this addition to the MLB schedule become a reality.
One particularly vocal advocate was longtime MLB broadcaster Jon “Boog” Sciambi, now with the Marquee Sports Network, whose childhood friend, Tim Sheehy, was diagnosed with the disease in 2005 and passed away in 2007.
“I think of it as baseball’s disease because of it also being known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” said Sciambi, who serves on the board of directors for Project Main St., which raises funds to improve the quality of life for those afflicted by ALS. “So I’m really excited that baseball is doing this. Just from an awareness standpoint, it's so important.”
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which was organized by the late Patrick Quinn and Pete Frates, went viral on social media in 2014 and was transformative in improving the public awareness of ALS while significantly increasing donations and expanding investment in disease research from the federal government.
Still, according to ALS Association research, more than 60% of Americans know nothing about ALS. The hope is that Lou Gehrig Day can help change that and continue to aid the pursuit of a cure.
“In 2021, it’s jarring to hear that anything is 100-percent fatal, and ALS is 100-percent fatal,” Sciambi said. “We’re still far away from finding a cure. And as the condition worsens, the financial cost increases and so many things are not covered by healthcare. People need help.”
Lou Gehrig Day will carry deep meaning for A’s outfielder Stephen Piscotty, who lost his mom, Gretchen, to ALS in 2018, and Rockies outfielder Sam Hilliard, whose father, Jim, was diagnosed with ALS that same year.
Piscotty’s father, Mike, is a Lou Gehrig Day Committee member and president of the ALS Cure Project.
“I believe Lou Gehrig’s sentiments as he said, ‘You don’t get the breaks unless you play with the team instead of against it,’” Mike Piscotty said. “ALS is a curable disease if we work together in a coordinated manner to achieve breakthroughs following the collaboratively developed ‘Roadmap to Cure ALS.’”
Lou Gehrig Day, therefore, is not just about Gehrig himself but the many people here and gone who have longed for a solution to this “bad break.”