The most famous photo of Lou Gehrig shows him near home plate at Yankee Stadium, his eyes pointed down in a reluctant and timid pose. At his feet are trophies and other gifts; whether the legendary Yankees first baseman is examining his bounty or merely staring blankly into a devastating void is impossible to know.
As Gehrig looked toward the dirt, all eyes in Yankee Stadium burned his stature into memory, a breathing memorial for eternity. Around him, teammates -- as well as local dignitaries, including New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia -- enveloped him in a symbolic embrace, while the fans in their white shirts, suspenders and fedoras stared on reverently.
The photograph speaks, silently.
Few things that have happened on the field in 150-plus years of Major League Baseball -- among them some of the finest and most shocking feats of athletic achievement -- can compare to the moment that followed on July 4, 1939, when Gehrig unspooled baseball’s Gettysburg Address. The speech is baseball canon. It is simple and profound, yet almost unacceptably optimistic. Once you get past Gehrig’s initial declaration of good fortune, as the clearly uncomfortable orator offers the proof that underlies his assertion, it is still an impossible idea to square. Yet it resonates.
Eighty years to the day after the Iron Horse’s passing, Major League Baseball celebrated the inaugural Lou Gehrig Day. The league-wide recognition saw all 780 big league players wear patches honoring Gehrig, with calls to action throughout the day’s games (or games on June 3, for teams that didn’t play on June 2). The goal -- this year and in the future -- is not just to honor the Yankees legend; it’s to raise funds and awareness to make crucial strides against a disease -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- that is, so far, undefeated.
“My dad helped me kind of understand the disease, which is complicated and sad, and there’s a lot of different words you can use to describe that disease,” said Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole, who recalled an elementary school report he did on Gehrig. “What we learned from Gehrig is some of the virtues I think we all try to aspire to: humility, sportsmanship, hardworking, perseverance, winning. Obviously a magnificent player. Just really on par with the Yankees brand, I think.”
There is an element of facade in the famous Gehrig photo, and in the afternoon’s happy tones. It’s too easy to thread the narrative from the Iron Horse streak -- the grit and endurance and tenacity of playing in 2,130 consecutive baseball games -- through the speech and finally to the monument that currently sits beyond center field. It’s a compelling arc that manages to erase much of the pain. ALS is a horrific disease not only because it has a 100% fatality rate, but also because of the way it ravages the patient’s body, atrophying the muscles and closing off motor functions while not impeding the cognitive parts of the brain that remain fully capable of understanding what is happening.
The speech, like the photo, is a still life. It is a moment in time. Life went on afterward, ever more difficult, ever more painful. Gehrig, who for 14 seasons wouldn’t take even a day’s rest, was dead inside of two years. And eight decades since his passing, how much has changed?
“Lou Gehrig passed away 80 years ago today,” said Patrick Quinn Sr., whose son Pat died from ALS in November 2020. “And if he were to get his ALS diagnosis today, the prognosis would be the same today as it was 80 years ago. There’s no treatment, there’s no cures, there’s nothing we can do to help you. So, 80 years later, we’re still in the dark.”
Approximately 5,000 people are diagnosed with ALS every year, and nearly 90% of the cases come without any kind of family history. It’s a difficult disease to pinpoint, with a final diagnosis usually coming through elimination of a host of other possibilities. That ultimate determination comes with a ticking clock and a list of expenses too great to imagine as the patient endures a shutdown of motor functions.
Pat Quinn became something of a cause celebre among Yankees fans, spurred on by the YES Network’s Jack Curry, after he -- along with Pete Frates -- helped the Ice Bucket Challenge go viral in 2014. The sensation raised approximately $115 million for the ALS Association, as well as approximately $100 million more to other organizations and individuals involved with the cause.
ALS patients typically live just 2-5 years after the diagnosis, and so while Quinn and Frates had their moments as hugely impactful ambassadors, the years that followed proved grim in ways that only families impacted by the disease can truly understand.
“What a lot of people see are Pat and Pete, when they were out in public, and when they were trying to generate awareness and trying to raise money for treatments and cures for ALS,” said Quinn Sr. “They don’t see the in-house stuff, the day-to-day progression of the disease, how debilitating it is. How from one week to the next, [he would go] from being able to put on his own clothes to me having to help him dress, to the point where he was wheelchair-bound, losing his voice.”
Frates had been captain of Boston College’s baseball team before he was diagnosed at age 27. His father, John, watched his son handle the last years of his life with dignity, humor and drive, noting how he, himself, sought inspiration from Pete’s outlook and attitude. But John also couldn’t put a happy face on what was clear to the naked eye. “This disease is so devastating, to watch the thing that he was most proud of -- which was his body, that he finely tuned -- just robbed from him every single day.”
Frates died in 2019, and Pat Quinn this past November. Although neither lived to see the inaugural Lou Gehrig Day, they had been part of an earlier attempt to get MLB to use its megaphone against the disease. At the time, they hoped that July 4 could be set aside every year for a league-wide call to action in Gehrig’s name. But it wasn’t until June 2019, when another ALS patient -- Bryan Wayne Galentine -- sent a late-night text to two friends he had met in the ALS patient community that the seed for Lou Gehrig Day was planted. Galentine’s message to fellow patient Adam Wilson and Chuck Haberstroh, whose mother was suffering from the disease, asked why they couldn’t do something robust around the league. And if July 4 would be too difficult due to the overlap with Independence Day, he wondered, then what about June 2, the day Gehrig took over as the Yankees’ everyday first baseman in 1925 and then, 16 years later, died?
The trio managed to get through to a few teams, and heard positive messages of support, but little came of it. ALS patients’ lives are on a clock, though, and patience is fleeting. Mike Crawford, the father of the Giants’ Brandon Crawford (and the father-in-law of Cole) joined the LG4Day Committee about six months after it formed, having developed a relationship with the community through the family of Oakland’s Stephen Piscotty, whose mother succumbed to the disease in 2018. “We’re on ALS time,” Mike Crawford said. “ALS schedule demands a sense of urgency.”
By October 2020, with a few big league backers but little tangible progress, Wilson had the idea to cold-email some team executives, doing his best to guess their contact information. About 15 minutes after correctly predicting D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall’s email address, he got a response from Hall with a promise to help. Hall passed the message along to all 30 team presidents; one of the first to respond with a pledge of support was the Yankees’ Randy Levine.
Within 24 hours, all 30 big league teams had agreed to put the date on the annual schedule; two days after that, Galentine passed away. ALS is ruthless. But June 2 was hardly a time for mourning.
“It’s a fantastic day,” Quinn Sr. said from a Yankee Stadium suite, after enduring years of days that were anything but. “The more awareness we can generate by events like this, that’s going to lead to a treatment, which will lead to a cure, guaranteed.”
During his time at UCLA, Cole played his home games at Jackie Robinson Stadium. One year, during the celebration of Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, Cole and his teammates were visited by the family of the barrier-breaking Hall of Famer, who had lettered in four varsity sports during his years as a Bruin.
Following his collegiate career, Cole moved on to Pittsburgh, where the annual, league-wide recognition of Roberto Clemente every September takes on added importance. Beyond donning the same black and gold that Clemente wore during his legendary career, Cole would also hear stories from Tom Walker -- the father of his teammate and friend, Neil -- about playing with Clemente in Puerto Rico.
“It makes it more personal,” Cole said on June 2, outfitted in the same pinstripes and interlocking NY that Gehrig had worn nearly a century earlier. “When you’re wearing the same jersey as them, there’s another connection that makes you undeniably closer to that legacy. … I’m certainly blessed to have played in three places where some of the most impactful baseball players of all time have come through, and it’s probably had an impact on my career.”
Even 80 years after his death, Gehrig remains a towering figure at Yankee Stadium. His number was the first retired in sports, but all these years later, the most jarring part of a visit to Monument Park is the simple equation under his name and face. June 19th, 1903 -- June 2nd, 1941. The monument’s inscription calls him “A man, a gentleman and a great ball player,” and it’s clear that the words were chosen carefully by his teammates. Much like the plaque for Thurman Munson, the verse is poignant, but secondary; these are shrines to legends who died far too young. And Gehrig isn’t even the only Hall of Fame Yankee to succumb to ALS; in 1999, 53-year-old Jim “Catfish” Hunter was felled by Lou Gehrig’s disease, and a quote from Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner rings familiar to the Gehrig tributes.
“Catfish Hunter was the cornerstone of the Yankees’ success over the last quarter-century,” Steinbrenner said. “We were not winning before Catfish arrived. He exemplified class and dignity, and he taught us how to win.”
Yankees reliever Luis Cessa said that some of the pitchers were discussing Gehrig when they got to the ballpark on the morning of June 2, and that the conversation eventually turned to memories of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Aaron Boone said that he spent some time watching videos before the game and enjoyed the tributes on the scoreboard. But he said that he got particularly emotional during the pregame national anthem, when 60-year-old Jerry Tolve, a musician from New Jersey who was diagnosed with ALS this past September, delivered a pitch-perfect rendition.
“I think it’s fitting that our sport has taken this initiative,” Boone said, “and hopefully it’s something that will better the lives of people that have to suffer through this disease and the extended families and friends that suffer through this. Hopefully this is a positive step in one day eradicating it, but also just making it better.”
At the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, there’s a note that Gehrig wrote to his wife, Eleanor, from the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit. The letter is dated May 3, 1939, the day after Gehrig asked Yankees manager Joe McCarthy to pull him from the lineup after 2,130 consecutive games played. One section reads:
My thoughts were with you constantly. How would this affect you and I -- that was the big question and the most important thought underlying everything. I broke just before the game because of thoughts of you. Not because I didn’t know you are the bravest kind of partner, but because my inferiority grabbed me and made me wonder and ponder if I could possibly prove myself worthy of you. As for me, the road may come to a dead end here, but why should it? Seems like our backs are to the wall now, but there usually comes a way out -- where, and what, I know not, but who can tell that it might not lead right out to greater things? Time will tell.
The tone and tenor offer a fine prelude to the speech Gehrig would give two months later, when he noted that he “might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.” It’s a mantra that many of those impacted by ALS live by. Kevin Heller was a member of the Lou Gehrig Day Committee until he passed away in January. On June 2, his wife, Lesley, spoke of the ways that Gehrig’s legacy endured through her husband’s fight against the disease.
“He right away referred to Lou Gehrig’s speech,” Lesley said of Kevin, a West Point alum and an active endurance athlete. “He said he completely agreed with Lou Gehrig that he is the luckiest man, that as much as it’s so strange to say this, as horrific as this disease is, it really blessed us in so many ways.”
That’s certainly a fitting message to take from the Iron Horse’s memory, an incredible perspective in the face of a savage disease that impacts families and caregivers alongside the patients, themselves, in a way the rest of us could hardly imagine. And the progress in eradicating ALS has not moved fast enough -- which is what Lou Gehrig Day is really all about.
John Frates, a loyal New Englander, offers guidance from an authoritative figure back home: Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “He always talks about the fundamentals,” Frates said. “‘We do the blocking and tackling first, then the game will open up and we’ll have success.’ If we do awareness, which is what we’re doing now, then the funding will come, the research then will follow, a treatment will become effective. And then the cure, and we don’t have to do this anymore.”
Gehrig’s speech is a great American artifact, one that can be and does get pulled out for any number of different reasons. But devoting a day on the baseball calendar to raising awareness -- and money -- for the fight against ALS can pay huge dividends. Mike Crawford said he hopes that 30 or 40 years from now, we celebrate Lou Gehrig Day not for the push to find a cure, but rather as a recognition of the Hall of Famer’s life, years after a remedy has been discovered. And despite all the misery of the more widespread COVID-19 pandemic, Crawford also said that doctors with whom he has spoken see hope in the response to the recent situation.
“We saw when we put our minds together with the vaccines for COVID, how quickly we can work and find solutions,” Crawford said. “Applying that same sense of urgency and awareness to ALS, they independently have told me that 10 years is not an unrealistic timeline to find a cure. So, that’s the hope.”
In the meantime, the Quinns, the Frates, the Hellers and so many other families who devoted themselves to creating Lou Gehrig Day remain leaders in the fight for a cure. They share the reluctance visible in the famous Gehrig photo, wishing like hell they could be ignorant to the disease’s impact, that they could return to a life in which they didn’t know of its horrors. Instead, they bear the burden of knowledge, and also the primary understanding of what Lou Gehrig Day means.
“It’s a great day,” says John Frates. “The ALS community is rejoicing, and I know my son and Pat Quinn are up there with Lou Gehrig as we speak.”