Lou Gehrig. His name is synonymous with the American psyche for two reasons. One, he was one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game, and two, his name was given to a life-ending disease that took his own life in 1941.
Gehrig was first diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in the Spring of 1939. It is said that most who are afflicted with the disease die within three to five years of receiving the news.
In his case, Gehrig died only two years after first finding out his condition. It then becomes reasonable to think that he was already suffering from the disease for most, if not all, of the 1938 season.
Gehrig's numbers that year were tame by his standards, but still quite good by any stretch of the imagination. He hit .295 with 29 home runs and 114 RBI. He scored 115 runs, slugged .523 and had an on-base percentage of .410. However, those were all down from his 1937 season: .351/.473/.643 with 37 home runs, 159 RBI and 138 runs scored.
Understanding how ALS affects a person only enhances what Gehrig was able to accomplish.
Nerve cells in the brain and spine waste away and eventually die, which doesn't allow muscles to function how they normally would. This is paramount to a baseball player who must have a split-second reaction in deciding whether or not to swing at a pitch. Although he turned 35 in the middle of the '38 season, it's clear the disease and not his age was catching up with him.
Being unable to get that little extra edge to turn around on a fastball or stay back on a curve ball makes all the difference in the world between a two-hopper to the second baseman or a foul ball and sending a pitch into the bleachers.
It was evident almost immediately at the beginning of the season that The Iron Horse wasn't quite right. He went hitless in seven of his first eight games. He didn't hit his first home run until May 3rd and had only four homers by June 1st. As late as August 6th, he was hitting only .274, by far the lowest average of his career since becoming the Yankees full-time starting first baseman in 1925.
Though the numbers were down, it's amazing to think he put up All-Star numbers with a deadly disease ravaging his body.
It also brings into light just how phenomenal his numbers were prior to the 1938 season. With all the current talk who should and shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame, Gehrig's numbers are astronomical. Between 1927 and 1937, he hit under .330 only twice, batted in fewer than 125 runs in a season only once, and had 200 hits in a season eight times. Forget barely making the Hall, Gehrig is either the first or second best first baseman (Albert Pujols) in the history of the game.
The history of baseball is filled with both great statistical years as well as great tragedies. No season has ever combined the best of one with the worst of the other like Lou Gehrig's 1938 season. It may have been the year he became human as a baseball player, but it's also the year he became an immortal American legend.
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