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April 25, 2012 at 11:08 AM

Remembering Lou Gehrig and the fight to cure ALS

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This is a change of pace, but I wanted to take a respite from the trials and tribulations of the Mariners to talk for a moment about Lou Gehrig, and the disease that bears his name, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The Evergreen chapter of the ALS Association held their annual fundraising luncheon last Friday, entitled “Visualize a world without ALS,” and the keynote speaker was Jonathan Eig, author of the excellent Gehrig biography, “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.”

Eig was at Safeco on Friday to watch the Mariners play the White Sox, which was fortuitious because he is based out of Chicago and is now editor-in-chief of a Chicago-based sports website called chicagosidesports.com. I don’t think he stayed around an extra day for Philip Humber’s perfect game, however.

We talked about how Gehrig, who died in 1941 at the age of 37, continues to provide a huge inspiration for the entire ALS community. Doctors often invoke Gehrig’s name to recently diagnosed patients as a symbol of strength, and his picture is framed in the offices of many ALS doctors and neurologists. Yet the quest to find a cure for the disease — or even its cause — continues almost 73 years after Gehrig stood at a microphone at Yankee Stadium and declared himself, in one of the most memorable speeches in American history, “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

“It is a disease of weakness,” said Eig..”It melts away your muscles, leaves you weaker and weaker until you can’t breath. Lou Gehrig was the Iron Horse, an unbelievably strong man who was brought down by ALS but never quit fighting. When he found out he had the disease, he said he felt lucky, and it’s not about the disease, but the fight. That makes him a really important figure today.”

Eig said that when his book was published in 2005, “It got a huge reaction from people in the ALS community. Lou Gehrig is a real positive marketing tool, and when when the book came out, the ALS community was happy to have someone spreading the word.”

Now, Eig says, he has become a huge supporter of ALS research “first of all as a spokesman for Lou Gehrig. Having written his biography, I feel a responsibility to continue to tell his sotry. He wanted to see the disease cured. We are carrying the fight for him.”

Eig believes that if Gehrig hadn’t been stricken — and his research showed that symptoms of ALS began to manifest themselves first in the spring of 1938, one year earlier than generally acknowledged — he might have played another five years.

“He might be remembered as the greatest hitter of all time,” he said. “He would likely have had more than 700 homers, more RBIs than Barry Bonds. He would be remembered quite differently. Because of the disease, he’s remembered as a great tragic hero. That’s his legacy now.”

And Eig, after doing the research for the biography, is an unabashed admirer of Gehrig.

“Going into this, I knew he was quiet, shy and dignified. As I saw the humanity with which he fought the disease, and read the letters he wrote while ill, that’s when I realized how strong he was and what a caring person he was. He really was the the sensitive, thoughtful guy I hoped he’d be. I really fell in love with the man.”

For more information on the Evergreen chapter of the ALS Association, go to www.alsa-ec.org.

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