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Luckiest Man

Jonathan Eig, author of the new book, Luckiest Man, has a column on the final years of Lou Gehrig's life featured in today's WSJ. Eig's work is based on letters between Gehrig and his doctor, Paul O'Leary.

Gehrig lived for two years after his farewell day at Yankee Stadium, when he proclaimed himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." But as Mr. Eig notes, Gehrig was far from lucky. ALS - "Lou Gehrig's disease" - is a grinding, debilitating illness which progressively robs the body of its ability to function.

The letters record the details of Mr. Gehrig's condition, his aches and pains, and his desperate efforts to find a cure. With his medical records permanently sealed, the letters stand as the only record of his dying days.

The letters also help complete a picture of a man who has been widely misunderstood. In his lifetime and in the six decades since his death, Mr. Gehrig has been portrayed as a wooden figure, a gentle giant who stared down fastballs and a deadly disease with the same quiet calm. But Mr. Gehrig was far more complex than his public image.

On the field, he was one of the greatest first basemen the game has ever seen, a powerful figure whose career spanned the Yankee dynasties of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. Off the field, self-doubt dogged him. He lived with his parents until he was 30 and often invited his mother to accompany the Yankees on road trips. He cried in the dugout when he thought he had disappointed his manager. He had confidence in his physical powers and not much else.

As ALS took its grip and Mr. Gehrig's muscles melted away, however, he displayed new strength. In his most private moments, writing letters he must have assumed no one but his doctor would see, he showed the sort of courage that had for so long eluded him.

The Journal also provides a public link to one of Gehrig's letters (pdf) from early in the period. It is optimistic and eloquent, perfectly in keeping with the iconic image of Gehrig's farewell speech.

Driving 4 Life, a charity founded by Tom Watson, Bruce Edwards, and Clemson's Jeff Julian, funds research seeking a cure for ALS. I posted on Jeff's story here last year. These guys - Gehrig, Edwards, and Julian - had a rough go with ALS, but managed to brighten people's lives despite their condition. Here's hoping for a bit of luck to come the way of the researchers, and the people currently suffering from this disease.