From the Luckiest Man to a pariah


We touched a little on the relationship between Bill Dickey and Lou Gehrig in my recent Grave Story on Dickey. Not only were they roommates on the road, but they were also good friends, and Gehrig’s illness and death had a profound affect on Dickey. Though these are events that took place more than 80 years ago, there is something very familiar and contemporary about the story. What happened with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka ALS, is the exact same thing that happened in the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the COVID-19 pandemic of more recent years. Namely, when confronted with a previously unknown and lethal illness, the public will generally accept hysteria and wild supposition as truth ahead of facts and science.

As the ALS Association website helpfully notes, the disease itself was first described in 1869 by a French neurologist. However, it was largely unknown until Lou Gehrig went public with his diagnosis in 1939. Some of the early attempts to describe it linked it to “acute infantile paralysis,” or polio. That was a disease that people were familiar with. Not only were polio outbreaks a regular occurrence in the first half of the 20th Century, but President Franklin Roosevelt was wheelchair-bound because of it. The only problem was that polio and ALS are two very different diseases, and the confusion caused Gehrig no end of problems in the last years of his life.

The part of the Lou Gehrig story that everyone knows is his “Luckiest Man” speech. On July 4, in between a doubleheader against the Washington Senators, Gehrig was honored in Yankee Stadium in front of an emotional crowd of more than 60,000 fans. (The Associated Press story that covered the event referred to his illness as infantile paralysis.) One of the few audio clips from his speech that survives – the one you probably know by heart – is, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” The line that comes immediately after it is this: “I’ve been walking onto ballfields for 15 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”

That was his statement on July 4, 1939. Here is one from Gehrig on August 22, 1940 – a little over a year later. “As it is now, I am a pariah whom many people shun. I might just as well have been marked with leprosy. Sitting in motion picture houses, those near me get up and move away.”

What happened in that year that turned the luckiest man into a pariah? Fear and misunderstanding played a significant part. This is before the era when people could “do their own research” and read misleading information on the Internet. Instead, they had to read misleading information in their newspapers. Specifically, New York City’s Daily News, courtesy of sports editor Jimmy Powers. He wrote an exposé about the struggling New York Yankees on August 18, 1940. The headline of the story was, “Has ‘Polio’ Hit the Yankees?”

“Has the mysterious “polio” germ, which felled Lou Gehrig, also struck his former teammates, turning a once-great team into a floundering non-contender?” Powers wrote. “According to overwhelming opinion of the medical profession, poliomyelitis, similar to infantile paralysis, is communicable. The Yanks were exposed to it at its most acute stage. They played ball with the afflicted Gehrig, dressed and undressed in the locker room with him, traveled, played cards and ate with him. Isn’t it possible some of them also became infected?”

The News mis-diagnosed Gehrig in the very headline, and the whole article went downhill from there. Using a teaspoon of facts and a gallon of medical ignorance, wild supposition and hysteria, Powers and the Daily News tried to pin the blame on the Yankees falling from four-time World Champs to an also-ran on Gehrig’s illness. It listed of all the Yankees who were underperforming in 1940. Red Ruffing lost his fastball, Bill Dickey lost his power. Red Rolfe had an eye ailment, Monte Pearson had a bum shoulder, Oral Hildebrand had a stomach problem, Atley Donald had problems with his sciatica. “Can coincidence explain these simultaneous ailments? Couldn’t the ‘polio’ germ be the common cause?” the News wrote, just asking questions.

Dr. Robert E. Walsh, Yankees physician, and Erle V. Painter, Yankees trainer, both denied Powers’ supposition. However, as the medical knowledge about ALS was relatively slim, both men admitted that there was a possibility that the rest of the team could have been infected. Today, we know there was no chance of anybody catching ALS from Gehrig. But the medical professionals just didn’t have the knowledge about the disease to make that kind of a definitive statement. “Though, at first, there was a very definite possibility of the entire team becoming afflicted, there is now no indication of it,” Walsh said instead.

Undaunted by the medical experts discounting the theory, Powers nevertheless pressed on in the conclusion of the report. He pointed out that Gehrig’s decline started in the middle of the 1938 season, and he didn’t get a diagnosis until June of 1939.

“Something has happened to the Yanks!” he declared. “If Gehrig passed through a state in which the cause of his ineffectiveness was undetermined, isn’t it possible such is also the case with many of the Yanks today?”

The accompanying artwork from the Daily News, August 18, 1940.

Ballplayers ebb and flow in their careers. Established veterans like Ruffing, Dickey and Lefty Gomez were all in their 30s and at an age where some decline in their production was to be expected. Ballplayers like Steve Sundra, Hildebrand and Donald caught lightning in a bottle in 1939 and couldn’t sustain it in ’40. To make it worse, seemingly nobody at the newspaper considered how the article might be received by Gehrig himself.

Grantland Rice tracked down Gehrig at his home in Riverdale, where he was with visitors Dickey and Tommy Heinrich, two of his longtime teammates. The stricken ballplayer called the story beyond belief.

“Does anyone believe that such a famous institution as the Mayo brothers’ clinic would let me wander around with a contagious disease that might affect my friends and the public at large? I know they will testify that I haven’t the type of disease mentioned in this article and also there  was and is no possible chance in the way of any form of contagion.”

It was at that point where Gehrig mentioned how he had been treated since his diagnosis became public. Eleanor Gehrig, his wife, chimed in with her concerns. “I was never so shocked in my life when I read that story. I knew the effect it would have on Lou, who has shown the finest courage anyone has ever seen. As it is, we will now probably have to go into retirement.”

If Gehrig was being shunned by the public, he still had his friends from the Yankees. Take Dickey, who may well have been the first person to see that there was something wrong. “Lou Gehrig was the strongest man I’ve ever seen,” he said in a 1982 interview. “Whenever I had something I couldn’t open, I handed it to him and he’d twist it off without even straining.” When the roles reversed and Gehrig started to need Dickey to open bottles, he knew something was wrong.

When Rice spoke with him in 1940, Dickey flatly denied the Yankees’ struggles on illness. “I roomed with Lou and I know I have never felt better physically in my life,” he said.

The Gehrigs threatened legal action against the News, and the paper tried to make the whole incident go away with an apology published on September 26, 1940. “The News has just finished a medical inquiry into the mysterious ‘polio’ germ,” the paper wrote, before announcing that Gehrig had ALS and not polio – in other words, their medical inquiry concluded what everybody knew a year prior.

Powers, writing in first person, wrote that Gehrig’s disease was connected frequently (and incorrectly) to the phrase “infantile paralysis,” and he started to theorize about the rest of the Yankees being afflicted by it. “Unfortunately, Lou Gehrig’s feelings were hurt by that process of thought. I am sorry,” Powers wrote in what may be one of the least sincere apologies ever run in a newspaper.

The worst part of it? The 1940 Yankees were a pretty good team! Sure, when the News’ initial report ran on August 18, the team had fallen into fifth place. Then they won 15 of their next 16 games and were back in second place. As Powers noted in his “apology,” the team as late as September had an outside chance at the AL pennant, even though they ultimately finished in third place with 88 wins. But the whole premise of the original story, where Gehrig had supposedly infected his teammates with a life-threatening illness? It was based on a slow start to the season that ended the day the story broke. But writing about a slump isn’t nearly as sensational as theorizing that an entire major-league team contracted a deadly illness — nor would it sell as many newspapers.

There would be no happy ending for Gehrig, as ALS was, and remains, incurable. However, he never lost his fighting spirit. “As far as my illness is concerned, I am still in there swinging and punching,” Gehrig told Rice. “My friends have been marvelous. You can tell them it’s still ‘heads up’ and not to worry about and contagious or infectious trouble from me in any way.”

The ALS Association continues to search for a cure to the disease and was buoyed by the hugely successful Ice Bucket Challenge of 2015. To donate, visit https://www.als.org/.

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