Lou Gehrig’s letter to his doctor reveals a very real side to a baseball legend
Most of what we know about Lou Gehrig and the disease that ended his life at age 37 centers around a few basic facts that have been well-documented in history books and through story-telling.
There was the noticeable decline in his performance on the field that led to an abrupt retirement at age 35. And, of course, his farewell speech on July 4, 1939, that ended with “Today I consider myself the luckiest man of the face of the earth,” which still, to this day, is considered the epitome of bravery and class in sports.
We know that the devastating effects of what is today best known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” — officially amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — came on quickly, debilitated him completely, and ended his life too soon, only two years after the original diagnosis.
But there are other parts of this story that haven’t been as well-documented and are just as fascinating, and tell a lot more about Lou Gehrig, the person.
He was, at his core, a normal man, dealing with his disease in the same manner as many who are afflicted with something that eventually could be, or undoubtedly will be, fatal. He followed doctor’s orders to the letter while finding a balance between dealing with the disease with some degree of optimism, while also being realistic about where he may be headed.
In other words, he was just like the rest of us.
A letter Gehrig wrote to Paul O’Leary, the doctor who diagnosed him with ALS at the Mayo Clinic, gives a touching glimpse as to what Gehrig was going through at the time. It showed Gehrig’s tremendous sense of humor and realness, like when he assured his doctor more than once that he was most definitely NOT drinking beer while taking the medication they were hoping would slow the effects of the disease.
This letter, and hundreds of other unique memorabilia items, is up for bid through an online auction held by SCP Auctions, located in southern California. Being a somewhat nutty baseball history buff, I took a ride to their headquarters on Friday to check out some of the swag in person. Gehrig’s letter was by far the coolest thing on display, which is saying a lot, considering other items included game-worn jerseys belonging to Sandy Koufax and Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige’s Hall of Fame ring.
Parts of Gehrig’s letter were heartbreaking. He wrote about how great he felt from the Thiamin injections, and you can really feel how hopeful he was that this would be a miracle cure of sorts. We know now, of course, that those Thiamin injections were nothing more than vitamins, giving a placebo effect rather than offering a real cure.
“Please understand I have taken approximately only eighteen or nineteen to date, and the results almost make me dread the day when I shall have to stop them,” Gehrig wrote. “If Dr. Gehrig were prescribing for Lou Gehrig he would urge the continuation of these injections.”
Gehrig went on to describe that what normally made him tired in the morning — brushing his teeth, shaving, combing his hair, buttoning buttons — was somewhat lessened from the Thiamin. Driving became easier, his energy levels were higher at night and the shaking had largely subsided.
You can hear the urgency through his words, as he was clearly trying to convince his doctor to continue the injections, indefinitely.
Gehrig’s medical issues, amazingly, didn’t deter him from also working to accommodate his doctor and some friends with World Series tickets, and he sounded genuinely concerned with making sure O’Leary could logistically get there in time for the games.
Other things we now know about Gehrig: he liked to use the term “swell guy,” he had a tremendous ability to spell, and he was funny: “Another prospective customer is Harry Geisel,” Gehrig wrote as a P.P.S. “A swell guy even though he is an umpire.”
The letter came from the estate of Dr. O’Leary, which sold it a few years ago before it was obtained by SCP Auctions. Some other items up for bid — specifically, Paige’s Hall of Fame ring, and Babe Ruth’s gold pocket watch from the 1948 celebration of the 25th anniversary of the opening of “The House That Ruth Built,” came directly from the families.
The auction, which runs until 10 p.m. ET on Saturday, includes hundreds of items, from the more affordable to the really high-end and exorbitant. Some of the memorabilia came from the Newport Sports Museum Collection, consisting of more than 10,000 game-used artifacts from every major sport.
There’s some great stuff here. But I am partial to Gehrig’s letter, which begins with a line I might text to a buddy on my lunch break:
“Dear Paul: Just a note to say ‘hello’ and find out how you all are…The best I hope. And before I go any further may I frankly assure you that I haven’t even had ONE beer.”
Other cool stuff: