The fragility of baseball's Iron Horse


April 03, 2005|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig

By Jonathan Eig. Simon and Schuster. 420 pages. $26.

If there is an underlying theme in Luckiest Man, Jonathan Eig's well-researched new biography of tragic baseball hero Lou Gehrig, it might be this: The devil really is in the details, even when the subject is one of the legendary angels of sport.

The Iron Horse remains an enduring symbol of quiet strength and dignity, largely because of the famous speech he made at Yankee Stadium when dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and the subsequent 1942 movie Pride of the Yankees, which further chiseled his legend into the American consciousness.

But Eig, who supplements the existing biographical record with a tremendous amount of additional detail, presents a figure in tremendous conflict until his terminal illness frees him from a life of tortured self-doubt.

Gehrig was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, but he also was an introverted man-child caught in a tug-of-war between his overbearing mother and outgoing, streetwise wife, Eleanor.

He was the toast of New York - where he was paired with Babe Ruth at the heart of the most fearsome baseball lineup in history - yet he was so insecure that he refused to hold out for a pay raise until late in his career. He was painfully shy, but traveled to Hollywood to audition for the role of Tarzan after Olympic star Johnny Weissmuller temporary quit the enormously popular movie serial.

And, even though he was making a huge salary by Depression-era standards, he was so tight-fisted that delivery boys joked about his stinginess.

In fact, Gehrig does not come across as particularly likable as Eig documents his early career, his up-and-down friendship with Ruth, his strange relationship with his immigrant parents and his clumsy attempts to romance Eleanor, who would free him from an almost unnatural sense of obligation to his mother.

Only after Gehrig's baseball skills begin to falter and he learns that he has been stricken with the horrible disease that eventually would bear his name does he bloom into the amiable figure Gary Cooper portrayed in the movie that would define Gehrig's persona all the way into the Cal Ripken era and beyond.

The title of the book, of course, refers to the supposedly impromptu speech that the withered Yankee legend delivered on "Lou Gehrig Day" at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. His most famous quote - "Today I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth" - becomes even more poignant because, Eig reveals, Gehrig tried to get off the field without saying a word.

In his final public moment, the Iron Horse was the tortured icon turned inside-out, once a man of tremendous physical strength and surprising emotional fragility recast with a frail shell and surprising inner strength.

What separates this biography from several earlier attempts to capture the essence of Gehrig is the very detailed account of his illness, which is augmented by a collection of letters between Gehrig and his doctors at the famous Mayo Clinic. Eig gained access to the letters through a Maryland memorabilia collector.

Eig is a senior special reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and his considerable journalistic experience is evident in the evenhanded analysis of Gehrig's treatment and the ethical dilemma faced by his doctors.

The Mayo Clinic letters appear to show that the medical staff withheld the true nature of the rare neurological disorder from him until Gehrig was in the late stages of the disease. He seemed convinced that the symptoms would be arrested and eventually reversed, and clung to that belief until he was bedridden and close to death, leaving the sad irony of a long-suppressed sense of optimism somehow unleashed by a terminal illness.

Though Eig's narrative is fairly straightforward, it's hard not to get the impression that he is convinced that the tragedy of Lou Gehrig was not only a productive life cut short, but a dynamic life not fully enjoyed.

Peter Schmuck writes about sports for The Sun and has covered Major League Baseball for 26 years.

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