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Lou Gehrig, Steve Gleason and a timeless case of stupidity

The names and circumstances may change, but there will always be those who don't just punch upwards, but grab as hard as they can in a desperate lunge at relevance.

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Stupidity is a timeless part of the human condition. Times change; stupidity remains the same. Witness the events of Monday, when three radio personalities associated with the morning radio show on 790 The Zone in Atlanta decided to do a humorless sketch mocking former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, who is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, more commonly known to Americans as Lou Gehrig's disease. They did not stop to think that this might be offensive to many, even those who, before that moment, might have had little or no awareness of Steve Gleason. They only knew that they had time to fill.

And so they plunged ahead and attempted to use ALS as a vehicle for -- what? It's clear listening to the bit that even they were uncomfortable with what they were doing. But if a blank page is oppressive to a writer, dead air is downright frightening to a radio man. There are broadcasters who fill those minutes intelligently and tastefully, regardless of how little material they might be supplied with at a given moment in time. Others, who can only supply "Mayhem in the AM," sacrifice credibility, dignity, and respect, both of self and of others, to the frantic attempt to gain and retain an audience. In that pursuit, anything is fair game, even the suffering of others.

This was hardly the first time someone in the media attempted to score points by attempting to capitalize on someone suffering from ALS. What the Atlanta hosts attempted to do by way of Steve Gleason, a New York newspaper columnist named Jimmy Powers tried to do to Lou Gehrig: bring notoriety to himself at the expense of a deeply ill man.

Everyone with the slightest knowledge of baseball or American culture knows the Lou Gehrig story: Herculean first baseman for the Yankees, never came out of the lineup, ultimately playing (with the help of a couple of dodgy now-you-see-him-now-you-don't appearances) in a record 2,130 straight games. In 1937, at 34 years old, he had a fairly typical Gehrig year, hitting .351/.473/.643 with 37 home runs. In 1938, he got off to a painfully slow start, and although his bat came around, his final numbers -- .295/.410/.523 with 29 home runs -- were soft by his high standards. There was no reason to think anything other than Gehrig was 35 and getting towards the end of things. Unfortunately, that assumption was correct, but not in the way they meant.

The next season, Gehrig could barely move around the infield, had difficulty doing simple physical tasks, and struggled to connect even with the straight fastballs of batting practice. On May 2, 1939, hitting just .143 in eight games and deeply shaken, he asked out of the lineup. It had been nearly 14 years since the Yankees had played a game without him.

You know the rest: Gehrig underwent a series of bewildering examinations to try to find out why he felt so weak, why a once-great athlete could no longer walk without dragging his feet. Finally, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota diagnosed Gehrig with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a degenerative disease affecting the motor neurons in the brain.

ALS is one of the more frightening afflictions that can beset a human being. The sufferer's consciousness is usually unaffected, and as the disease progresses he becomes entombed in his own body, ultimately losing the ability to walk, care for himself, or even speak. As James Lincoln Ray put it in his biography of Gehrig, "Patients are usually fully cognizant and coherent until the final weeks. They are condemned to witness their own slow demise. This was Lou Gehrig's fate, and he learned of it on his 36th birthday."

That was June 19. Two days later, the Yankees held "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day." The Yankees reunited the 1927 lineup, and Gehrig and Babe Ruth, who had been estranged for years, embraced. Then Gehrig, overcome with emotion, made his famous statement, "Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break... Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

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The newsreels and "Pride of the Yankees" tastefully end there, but Gehrig went on, at least for a little while. Although there have been some long-lived ALS sufferers, such as the physicist Stephen Hawking, who has lived with the disease for approximately 50 years, an ALS diagnosis is very often a rapid death sentence. Gehrig passed away about two weeks shy of the second anniversary of his trip to the Mayo Clinic.

The point here is that ALS is not a disease to be taken lightly, not 74 years ago and not today. As with any degenerative disease, like Alzheimer's, or one with a debilitating progression, like cancer, it is in many ways as hard on the family as the patient, as they must watch their loved one slip away from them piece by piece until there is nothing left.

That doesn't mean that someone won't try to use it to score some easy points. In Gehrig's case, the opportunity for mischief arose from the manner in which his illness was disclosed. When his diagnosis was made public, the Mayo Clinic's press release put it this way: "After a careful and complete examination, it was found that he is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This type of illness involves the motor pathways and cells of the central nervous system and in lay terms is known as a form of chronic poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis)."

The analogy to polio might have confused some people. Though ALS is popularly known (if "popular" is the right word, as if some night "Family Feud" might put up a category like, "Ways to Die that Scare the Snot Out of You" and this year's Richard Dawson manqué will look up at the board and shout, "Do we have, ‘Being decapitated by driving into the back of a stopped tractor trailer, just like Jayne Mansfield?'") known in the United States as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," it isn't because he was the first case. The disease had been known since the mid-1800s, even if it wasn't (and isn't) well understood. Gehrig's was merely the most famous case to that point, the first to make the general public aware that this terrible fate could befall them. However, they did know polio quite well, and they understood that polio is communicable. Until the polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s, epidemics were routine.

A little knowledge, as they say, is a dangerous thing. Polio is a virus and thus can be transmitted from human to human. ALS arises from a chromosome malfunction, not from a virus or a bacteria, and thus, as far as is known, cannot be transmitted, except perhaps in the hereditary sense. That provides a bit of cover for what happened in 1940, though it does not excuse it.

Jimmy Powers was a longtime columnist for the New York Daily News. He wrote for them from 1928 through 1959, and, as an aside to those of us in the media who think we're special because we have managed to wrest for ourselves a little soapbox of our own, Powers' paper had a daily circulation of something like 3 million at its peak and he also did television work. He is not one of the 22 New York-based writers that have been honored with the BBWAA's J.G. Taylor Spink Award. There are no collections of his work today. The Library of America has not and will not be issuing a standard volume of his work to stand alongside their handsome editions of Ring Lardner, Red Smith, and A.J. Liebling. His one book, a collection of thrice-told anecdotes called Baseball Personalities, is long out of print. By the time he died, age the age of 92 in 1995, no one knew who the hell he was. He doesn't even have a bloody Wikipedia page. When Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here," he should have been talking about sportswriters.

On August 18, 1940, Powers had some inches to fill and a slumping team of Yankees to write about. The team, trying to win its fifth straight pennant, were just 57-53 and in fifth place, 10 games out. Here's how he chose to handle it: He attributed the team's poor showing to illness, with the Iron Horse serving as the vector.

The Yankees, who for the past four years have been one of the greatest baseball machines in history, and almost universally selected to win the pennant again, have collapsed.


Has the mysterious "polio" germ, which felled Lou Gehrig, also struck his former teammates, turning a once-great team into a floundering non-contender? According to overwhelming opinion of the medical profession, poliomyelitis, similar to infantile paralysis, is communicable. The Yanks were exposed to it at its most acute stage. They played with the afflicted Gehrig, dressed and undressed in the locker room with him, traveled, played cards and ate with him. Isn't it possible some of them also became infected?

It's hard to believe mere coincidence can explain away the whole failure of individuals. In Gehrig's case, one of the most prominent symptoms was loss of muscular power. The same symptom can be found in many of the Yanks today. So far no one has been able to advance a satisfactory reason for it.

Gehrig was appalled and filed suit for libel, as did Bill Dickey and other still-active players with the Yankees. Powers and the Daily News lawyers claimed they had been confused by the Mayo Clinic report inaccurately comparing ALS to poliomyelitis. It is not clear, all these years later, that if ALS was then understood to be distinct from polio, as it is now, why the Mayo Clinic worded its release the way it did; possibly something had been garbled in the communication between doctors and the public, and what had been intended was something along the lines of, "This type of illness involves the motor pathways and cells of the central nervous system and in lay terms [the effect is somewhat analogous to] chronic poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis)."

Either way, the Daily News published a retraction under the headline, "OUR APOLOGIES TO LOU GEHRIG AND THE YANKEES." Powers wrote that he should not have written about medical concepts of which he had no understanding. Gehrig kept up his suit, later settling out of court for $17,500. The Yankees, who were an old ballclub, not an ill one, had the best record in baseball from that point on, going on a 31-13 (.705) run to finish the season. They finished third place, just two games out of first in a tightly-bunched American League. The same group won the pennant again in 1941. And 1942. And 1943. Infantile paralysis indeed. In the end, germs didn't stop them, the U.S. Army did -- it took away Joe DiMaggio.

When Gehrig died, thousands mourned, either in person, at one of two public wakes held for him, or vicariously, the same way they did when he was alive and playing first for the Yankees. Steve Gleason is not Lou Gehrig, but he does not need to be. He only need be what he is -- a man coping bravely and publicly with a very serious illness, and doing his best, as he indicated in the column that began all this idiocy, to turn a grave disease into a chronic condition. We can only wish him success in this endeavor, and hope that, like Stephen Hawking, even if ALS makes his remaining years ones of hardship, that there are many of them, that he is able to enjoy the love of his friends, family, and fans, and that, if the disease does eventually claim him, it is in the fullness of time, so long from now that it truthfully cannot be said that he was cheated of even a single moment.

As for the now-unemployed Atlanta radio personalities, I end where I began: their ignorant escapades remind me of Jimmy Powers, only they had less excuse than he did. More than that, they remind me of Jimmy Powers' fate. I note that in the many articles describing their antics on this day, few of them bother to identify them by name. They are only "the three individuals involved." Their names aren't important, and no one cares to investigate further.

Sources for this article include the aforementioned SABR biography, by James Lincoln Ray; Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time, by Ray Robinson; and Luckiest Man, by Jonathan Eig.

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