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Book World Live: Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig

Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; 3:00 PM

"On June 2, 1941, just days short of his 38th birthday, Henry Louis Gehrig died at his house in the pleasant New York City neighborhood of Riverdale. The disease that killed him, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was almost entirely unknown at the time, to the extent, Jonathan Eig writes, that "many doctors in the United States had never heard of ALS." Gehrig, the great first baseman of the New York Yankees -- indeed, commonly conceded to have been the greatest first baseman in baseball history -- changed all that. In the years after his death, ALS became near-universally known as Lou Gehrig's disease, as it is to this day; for all the advances medical science has made in the six decades since Gehrig's death, 'his' disease still has no known cure. "
-- Luckiest Man (Book World, April 3 )

Join Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley for a discussion of "Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig" by Jonathan Eig, on Tuesday, April 5, at 3 p.m. ET.


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A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Jonathan Yardley: Thanks for joining me in this discussion of Lou Gehrig and Jonathan Eig's new biography of him, "Luckiest Man," which I reviewed in this past Sunday's Washington Post Book World. I sense from some of the early questions that some of you have not seen the review, since matters are raised in these questions that are discussed in the review. It might therefore be a good idea to have a look at the review before joining the discussion. There's a link to the review next to the picture of Gehrig on the main page of today's Washingtonpost.com.
Thanks.

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Houston, Tex.: How has treatment for ALS changed
since 1941?

What is the prognosis for a person with ALS today?

Thank you.

Jonathan Yardley: Alas, the prognosis is gloomy. By strange and unsettling coincidence, on the day my review of Gehrig's biography was published in The Post, there was an obituary of John O'Leary, who had died the previous day from complications arising from ALS. John, formerly the American ambassador to Chile, was a remarkable man whom I was privileged to have had as a friend. The last time I saw him, in the fall of 2004, he was the picture of health. There were less than three months between the diagnosis of his ALS and his death. It is a terrible disease that so far has completely eluded medical science.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: In spite of all the "Aw shucks, I just wanna ball and help out the team" shtick of Gehrig, wasn't he really a big-time pain in the a_ _ to fans and teammates? Some true words about the real Gehrig before we all canonize him, please.

Thanks much.

Jonathan Yardley: Please have a look at my review. I devote a full paragraph to how his teammates and others felt about him.

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Apex, N.C.: I have thought for some time that Lou Gehrig was more than comfortable with the fact that Babe Ruth drew more public attention for feats that were equally remarkable. Did you find any evidence in your research that Mr. Gehrig feared that his record would be obscured by the Babe's antics and accomplishments?

Jonathan Yardley: No I didn't. I'm sure Gehrig was baffled by Ruth, his polar opposite in just about every respect except batting skill, but as I understand it he admired Ruth's gifts and found him at once fascinating and bewildering.

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Rockvillle, Md.: Gehrig and Ruth were not on speaking terms for much of their careers with the Yankees. There are films of Ruth home runs where Gehrig doesn't even shake Ruth's hand as he crosses home plate. Is it true that this feud resulted from a disagreement between their wives and if so do you know what it was?

Jonathan Yardley: As I say in the review, Jonathan Eig suggests that Ruth may have made a pass -- or more -- at Gehrig's wife. I believe rumors to that effect have floated around for decades. I have no idea what is the truth.

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washingtonpost.com: Review: 'Luckiest Man' (Post, April 3)

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Collinsville, Ala.: The famous movie about Lou Gehrig was the first movie my father ever took my mother to see when they were dating; late 40's in Rome, Georgia. My dad was still crying in the closing scenes when it came out on VHS.
My dad was almost the brother-in-law of Leon Culberson, who David Halberstam gave some repute in the Teammates about the aging BoSox. Yankees or Sox, great baseball stories.
I will be reading this book to remember them; but mostly my dad's love for the game and that era of his youth and midlife.

Jonathan Yardley: That movie holds up surprisingly well. Gary Cooper was badly miscast as Gehrig, but he made the most of it. I watched it on television several months ago for the first time in years and was, again, quite moved by it.

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San Bruno, Calif.: Was there any scandal in Gehrig's life on or off the field (drinking, mistresses, late night carousing, etc)? Can you further explain his feud with Babe Ruth?

Jonathan Yardley: Not that I'm aware of. As I noted in an answer to a previous question, he and Ruth were polar opposites. That alone goes a long way toward explaining their differences.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. Yardley: Thank you for this "chat," and your continuing columns in the Post bringing up sometimes-neglected writers, such as Charles Willeford. It's interesting to think how Gehrig's tragic death would have been covered by today's "saturation news." No doubt hourly bulletins from the hospital during the last weeks of his life. In some ways, the "Good Old Days" were just that.

Jonathan Yardley: Thanks very much. I'm glad you like those Second reading columns. They're a lot of fun to do. I'm working on Joseph Conrad's "Victory" right now.

Yes, try to imagine CNN and Fox on the death watch. It's horrible to contemplate.

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Bayonet Point, Fla.: This was a great article ... have read info on Lou Gehrig but would like to read this book. Having a very dear aunt that died of this disease, and, helped to take care of her until the very end ... I know what a horrible death this is ... everything in the body shuts down, except the mind. For all those that fight this disease are true heroes. We need more news media to help those who have this disease, more research and maybe finally a cure.

Jonathan Yardley: Amen.

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Janesville, Wisc.: Did Lou's widow ever remarry and how long did she survive him?

Jonathan Yardley: She "never remarried and never had children, Eig writes. "...But she never settled peacefully into her solitary life. Her drinking, always somewhat heavy, became intense. She died on March 6, 1984, her eightieth birthday."

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Washington, D.C.: How did Gehrig feel about players from the Negro leagues playing in the Major leagues? Did he play in the exhibition games against Negro leaguers?

Jonathan Yardley: Interesting question to which I have no answer. I have no recollection of reading about it in bound galleys of the book (the form in which I usually read forthcoming books) and a quick check of the index in the finished book shows no references. My guess is that he played in some exhibitions against black players, but it's only a guess. I just checked the index of "Only the Ball Was White," Robert Peterson's definitive history of black baseball, and there's no mention of Gehrig. He was a decent, fairminded man and it's hard to imagine him as bigoted, but in the absence of evidence we'll just have to let it ride.

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Fairfax, Va.: How do you think Lou Gehrig would feel to know that a disease is named after him? It seems pretty old-fashioned these days to call ALS "Lou Gehrig's Disease"; we're a little more sophisticated these days, aren't we? Just wondering your thoughts on this.

Jonathan Yardley: He was such a humble guy that he might well have felt honored. That's only a guess, though.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: For all the advances in medicine, very few diseases have a "cure", but treatments have been developed to prolong survival or induce remission of disease. That being said, why do you think more effective treatments for ALS haven't been developed? Does the fact that the disease is so rare, that the business proposition for pharmaceutical companies is pretty minimal, have anything to do with it? Or is the science so remote that it just isn't possible no matter how much resources are devoted to it?

Jonathan Yardley: You're asking someone whose knowledge of medical and scientific matters is appallingly inadequate. Eig says that about 25,000 Americans are diagnosed with ALS each year: "Most patients die within two or three years of diagnosis. In other words, not much has changed since 1941." My own inclination is to blame the drug companies for any- and everything, but in this case I think it's just an incredibly complex neurological puzzle that no one has been able to solve. There could well be a Nobel prize awaiting the person or persons who finds the cure, so you can bet people are trying.

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Fincastle, Va.: Regarding Gehrig and black players: Eig quotes him in the book as saying that there's no reason they too shouldn't be allowed in the big leagues along with whites.

Jonathan Yardley: Yes, I vaguely remember that. Odd that there's no entry under "Gehrig, Lou" in the index for, say, "on race" or "and black players" or something like that.

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Apex, N.C.: Since several folks are inquiring as to the nature of the "feud" between Gehrig and Ruth, I thought I would offer that I read somewhere that Mrs. Ruth had made a remark about Lou's mother that was unkind. I think it had something to do with her appearance. From what I recall, Lou was not confrontational, but treated the couple in a more cool and distant manner.

All I can say is, if I could live a parallel life, I would want to see the 1927 Yankees at work -- Murderer's row would be quite an experience to witness!

Jonathan Yardley: That story rings a faint bell, and I now see there's a story in Eig's book (pp. 189-90) about ill feelings between the two women. He follows that with a brief discussion of rumors about Eleanor and the Babe getting it together, and intimates that this may have been the real problem.

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washingtonpost.com: Review: 'Luckiest Man' (Post, April 3)

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Fincastle, Va.: This is nothing but anecdotal; however, it has always intrigued me that two people who attended the Catholic church I once belonged to in Roanoke, Va., died of ALS. And I believe that at one time they lived on the same street.

Jonathan Yardley: Pure coincidence, of course, but odd.

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Arlington, Va.: Mr. Yardley -- Thank you for the compelling review of Mr. Eig's book, "Luckiest Man." Your reviews are always complete without giving away too much -- I still feel compelled to read the book myself, but have a much better idea of what to expect.

And, I am not a baseball fan, much less a Yankees fan!

Jonathan Yardley: That's very kind of you. Thanks very much. This coming Sunday I'm reviewing the new novel by Kazuo Ishiguru, and I can assure you it was really hard work to describe it without giving it away.

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Crofton, Md.: How interesting a person was Lou Gehrig?

Jonathan Yardley: Not very, I think. Kind, decent and upright, but not especially interesting.

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Gobsmacked: Your review reminded of a time when I was helping to take care of one my neighbors who was then suffering from ALS. My husband and I were discussing this disease with some people when someone asked,

"What was the name of that ballplayer who Lou Gehrig's Disease is named after?"

Jonathan Yardley: That's good.

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Deer Park, N.Y. I understand that Lou Gehrig is considered the greatest first baseman of all time and I'll give him that in regard to his hitting abilities. How good of a 'gloveman' was he? I've been watching baseball since the early 60's and I think Keith Hernandez with his range and fielding abilities ranks as an all time great 'gloveman' (not bad with the bat either). Your thoughts ...

Jonathan Yardley: Yes, I remember Hernandez too. I'm sure he was Gehrig's superior in the field, and he was a good hitter as well, but at the plate he was no Gehrig.

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Washington, D.C.: Does "Luckiest Man" discuss Gehrig's relationship with Wally Pipp, the first baseman who sat out with a headache in June 1925 and was replaced by Gehrig, and who famously never got his old job back?

Jonathan Yardley: Not specifically, though he goes into plenty of detail about when and where Gehrig stepped in for Pipp, who seems to have been a decent sort who respected and admired Gehrig.

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Chicago, Ill., home of Jonathan Eig!: So where do you rank "Luckiest Man" along with other sports biographies? What are some of the best ones you've read?

Jonathan Yardley: It's a good book. Robert Creamer's "Babe" is the best by far, and his "Stengel" is excellent too. I understand Jane Leavy's biography of Sandy Koufax is good but haven't read it. Most sports biographies are exercises in hero-worship or, these days, debunking, to wit Richard Ben Cramer's awful biography of Joe DiMaggio.

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Baltimore, Md.: Re Gehrig and Ruth: Happened to catch part of a rebroadcast of Ken Burns's baseball film on WETA this past weekend. According to the film, Ruth, by the age of seven, was chewing tobacco, drinking whiskey and throwing rocks at cops. If there were ever two antithetical men, except for their batting abilities, they were Ruth and Gehrig.

Jonathan Yardley: Did Ruth really wait that long to get started? I thought his first drink wasn't mother's milk but rye whiskey.

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Elkridge, Md.: I remember a TV movie with Edward Hermann playing Lou and Blythe Danner playing his wife. It seems to be closer to real life than the earlier movie with Gary Cooper.

Jonathan Yardley: Sorry, didn't see it.

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Olney, Md.: Why wasn't this book as good as Creamer's biography of the Babe? Was there anything new or startling in it?

Jonathan Yardley: Eig is a capable reporter but not an especially good writer. Creamer is a *good* writer.

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Manassas, Va.: Gehrig was selected on the All Century Team in 1999 for 1st Basemen. I'm sure if you compare Hernandez and Gehrig you will see that Gehrig's stats are superior.

I don't see why a few here feel the need to find something bad about an honorable man.

By the way, why is a book being written about Gehrig now? Is it the anniversary of anything? Discovery of the disease?

As a piece of trivia, Curt Schilling of the Redsox thought so highly of Gehrig and his plight that he raises money for ALS research and named his son Gehrig.

Jonathan Yardley: I don't think anyone's trying to dig up dirt on Gehrig. To the contrary, Eig's book pays him all due tribute. I'm sure he wrote it because he knew that no substantial biography existed, knew there was a story to be told, and knew that Gehrig remains a significant figure in American mythology.

_______________________

Jonathan Yardley: That's going to do it for today. Thanks to all of you for coming in out of the beautiful weather and participating in the discussion. Me, I'm going out now, while the sun still shines.

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