This summer Major League baseball will participate in an extensive fundraising campaign for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). During the seventh inning stretch on July 4, every home team will host an on-field reading of Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech that he gave 70 years ago at Yankee Stadium. Players will wear a 4⋄ALS patch on uniforms. Why should neurologists care about this event?
As the sports columnist Jim Murray aptly wrote, Lou Gehrig “was a symbol of indestructibility — a Gibraltar in cleats.” The son of poor German immigrants who stressed hard work and education, he played in 2,130 consecutive professional baseball games over 15 years despite fractures in his hands, head injuries from being “beaned,” and chronic back pain. And, all the while, he was one of the best players ever! He played in numerous World Series and won the “Triple Crown” in 1934 batting .363, hitting 49 home runs, and 165 runs batted in. He was the youngest player ever to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the first ever to have his number retired.
As most baseball aficionados know, Gehrig decided to bench himself on May 3, 1939, because ALS weakened him. Two months later at age 36, he gave a tearful farewell speech with this memorable quote: “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He died just short of his 38th birthday.
Many famous authors have written stories with baseball themes. Some refer to baseball as our national pasttime; others see the game as a metaphor of life. Unlike many sporting events, there's no time clock so, as Yogi Berra is famously quoted, “It ain't over ‘til it's over.’”
Our everyday language is peppered with baseball expressions — beaned, strike out, sacrifice, southpaw, on deck, and pinch hitter. So it is no surprise that when one of the very best ever to play the game developed a neurological disease few had ever heard about, the illness became a household word. The French refer to ALS as Charcot's disease since he first described the illness, but in the US it is commonly named Lou Gehrig's disease.
Of course, most people who develop chronic neurological disorders are not famous athletes, politicians, or entertainers. But we often turn to famous people to put a human face on fundraising efforts and to educate the public. Most of our patients cope with their neurologic deficits away from the limelight, but they still show amazing internal strength and perseverance when facing catastrophic illness.
A patient's courage was driven home to me by another prominent Major League baseball player whom I met socially when he was still healthy and who died within a year of the subsequent diagnosis of a glioblastoma multiforme. Dan Quisenberry was a premier relief pitcher for the Kansas City Royals in the 1980s. He helped win a World Series and set a Major League record of 45 saves in one year. His teammates saw him as “brainy” since he was always reading books and visiting museums when his team was on the road.
Quisenberry was known for his quirky pitching motion and humorous quotes. His disarming originality made him a favorite of fans and the press. His most famous quote was “I have seen the future, and it is much like the present, only longer.” After his retirement, he established a food bank in Kansas City and began to write poetry. In “Antelope Wall Mount,” a poem written before the diagnosis of his brain tumor about an antelope he shot hunting, he wrote prophetically: Did he hear a death call? Will I hear mine? And stop all to stare at it widely pointing my way?
When a mutual friend urged him to talk to me about treatment options for his brain tumor, Dan was characteristically apologetic that perhaps what he was calling about was too unimportant to interrupt me at home. He was quite clear that he didn't want any therapy if it meant being away from his family or community. Spending his remaining time with the people he loved was most important to him. When people asked him, “Do you ever say why me?” he said, “No. Why not me? I've had a great life…why am I different from anyone else?”
There are days when I come home emotionally exhausted after seeing several patients with advanced ALS. But at such times, I think about all the courageous people I see who cope day in and day out with neurological illness and my fatigue fades away.
As neurologists, we are privileged to have the knowledge and skills to help people with neurological disorders. Lou Gehrig and Dan Quisenberry remind us that none of us is immune to illness. And, who knows, perhaps the July 4 remembrance of Lou Gehrig will invigorate an ALS researcher to “step up to the plate” and discover a cure.