ALS was first found in 1869 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, but it wasn’t until 1939 that Lou Gehrig brought national and international attention to the disease. Ending the career of one of the most beloved baseball players of all time, the disease is still most closely associated with his name. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.
ALS usually strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70, and it is estimated there are more than 20,000 Americans who have the disease at any given time (although this number fluctuates). For unknown reasons, military veterans are approximately twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease as the general public. Notable individuals who have been diagnosed with ALS include baseball great Lou Gehrig, theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Toto bassist Mike Porcaro, Senator Jacob Javits, actor David Niven, “Sesame Street” creator Jon Stone, boxing champion Ezzard Charles, NBA Hall of Fame basketball player George Yardley, golf caddie Bruce Edwards, musician Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), photographer Eddie Adams, entertainer Dennis Day, jazz musician Charles Mingus, former vice president of the United States Henry A. Wallace, U.S. Army General Maxwell Taylor, and NFL football players Steve Gleason, O.J. Brigance and Tim Shaw.
What is ALS?
Who is Lou Gehrig?
Of all the players in baseball history, none possessed as much talent and humility as Lou Gehrig. His accomplishments on the field made him an authentic American hero, and his tragic early death made him a legend.
It wasn’t until 1939 that Lou Gehrig brought national and international attention to the disease. Lou Gehrig was a famous baseball player for the New York Yankees. He played in more consecutive baseball games than any other player, until his record was broken by Cal Ripken, Jr., in 1995. Throughout his career, Gehrig was a symbol of indestructibility — the “iron man” of baseball. On May 2, 1939, he pulled himself out of the lineup of players “for the good of the team.” He was not playing well and knew that something was physically wrong. Within a few months, Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS. He died two years later. To this day, the disease is still most closely associated with his name, often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”
New York sportswriter Paul Gallico suggested the team have a recognition day to honor Gehrig on July 4, 1939. There were more than 62,000 fans in attendance as Gehrig stood on the field at Yankee Stadium with the 1927 and 1939 Yankees. He fought back tears of overwhelming emotion and began to speak his immortal
words of thanks, calling himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” It was one of the most poignant and emotional moments in the history of American sports, and there was not a dry eye in Yankee Stadium. At the close of Gehrig’s speech, Babe Ruth walked up, put his arm around his former teammate and spoke in his ear the first words they had shared since 1934.