A hero on the field... and off

In an interview with the Post, biographer Jonathan Eig insists Lou Gehrig should be remembered more for his life than his death.

lou gherig 88 298 (photo credit: )
lou gherig 88 298
(photo credit: )
Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig By Jonathan Eig Simon and Schuster 432pp., $26 The past few years have been far from easy for professional baseball and its fans. First came sordid revelations about steroid use among players, which led to US congressional hearings on the subject and cast a pall over the professionalism of some of the game's best-known stars. In 2005 alone, a dozen of baseball's athletes were suspended after testing positive for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Not surprisingly, home run records and other intrepid feats were called into question, as yesterday's heroes became objects of scorn and derision. It didn't take long before "America's game" was quickly transformed into grist for the mill of late night television hosts across the country. Then, in a stinging vote of no-confidence, the 2005 World Series attracted the lowest television ratings ever recorded, with a drop of 30 percent off last year's championship. The game and its reputation had been tarnished, leading many viewers to tune in elsewhere. It is at times such as these that many of the game's adherents are increasingly nostalgic for a more innocent era, one where baseball was untainted by skyrocketing salaries, drug scandals and rampant commercialism. One where the men on the field could be seen as heroes who played the game out of fondness for its nuance and commitment to its integrity. The Luckiest Man, Jonathan Eig's captivating new biography of baseball legend Lou Gehrig, provides a timely and beautifully written portrait of just such a hero. Blending the human drama of Gehrig's valiant battle against terminal illness with gripping descriptions of his on-field exploits, Eig has woven a sensitive and endearing portrayal that will appeal to baseball and non-baseball enthusiasts alike. To the public at large, Gehrig is perhaps best known because of the malady that bears his name - "Lou Gehrig's Disease," or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) - a degenerative neurological disorder that attacks the nerve cells which control the body's voluntary muscles, resulting in paralysis and death. Particularly memorable was his farewell speech at New York's Yankee Stadium, where he bowed out by declaring himself to be "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." In 1942, shortly after Gehrig's death, film star Gary Cooper portrayed him on the silver screen in Pride of the Yankees, which The New York Times included last year on its list of the greatest movies ever made. But perhaps because of all the attention that was focused on Gehrig's untimely death, much less is known about the dignified manner in which he lived. Eig, a senior special writer for The Wall Street Journal, conducted hundreds of interviews and sifted through 200 pages of Gehrig's previously undisclosed letters, to draw a far more thorough, and ultimately more affecting, portrait of this great man. Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Eig said, "Heroes are those who rise above their circumstances, and Gehrig was a strong hero - he was struck down by disease at such a young age for such a great athlete, yet he handled it so incredibly gracefully." Without complaint or bitterness, Gehrig sought out treatment at the famed Mayo Clinic, guided by an abiding sense of determination to combat his disease. Even after the illness had ravaged his body, and he could no longer drive or hold a pencil, he dutifully continued to show up for work at his new, post-baseball job as a New York City parole commissioner. "The strength he showed on the ball-field," Eig noted, "is the same kind of strength that he showed when he got sick." Though little more is known about ALS today than in Gehrig's time, Eig is hopeful that the book "will raise awareness about the disease along with more money to fight it, and that it will enable people with ALS to see what Gehrig went through and how he dealt with it." And it is precisely Gehrig's strength of character, more than anything else, which shines through this book. Gehrig was honest and hard-working, refusing to demand large salary increases when his contract came up for renewal, simply because he was happy to be playing the game he loved while earning a nice living in the process. But like all human beings, Gehrig had his flaws as well, and Eig does not shy away from discussing them. The book contains revealing new details about Gehrig's deep-seated sense of insecurity, his tense relations with teammate Babe Ruth and how his adulation for his mother impacted his interpersonal relationships with others. Even Gehrig's remarkable record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games (broken only in 1995 by Cal Ripken Jr.), comes under renewed scrutiny, as Eig points out that the "Iron Horse" - as Gehrig was known - was not above making a brief appearance in a game solely in order to keep his streak technically alive. But that is what ultimately makes Eig's telling of Gehrig's story so appealing, because unlike many other sports books, this one allows the reader to catch a glimpse not only of the uniform, but of the human being who wore it. By emphasizing the link between a great player's accomplishments on the field and the nature of his character off it, Eig has helped to illuminate a basic truth that many modern-day athletes seem otherwise to have forgotten.