ALS is a disease that often does not receive the level of awareness that it should. Also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, this fatal condition often leads to death just a few years after patients receive their diagnosis. But why is ALS known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease?
First, let’s delve into exactly what ALS is before answering that question.
ALS is short for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and this refers to a neurological condition discovered by a French doctor by the name of Jean-Martin Charcot in 1869. This progressive disease gets worse as more time passes on, affecting the nerves in a person’s spinal cord and brain that are responsible for controlling their muscles. As the muscles gradually get weaker over time, it becomes more difficult for the person to talk, walk, eat, and even breathe.
Henry Louis “Lou” Gehrig was born in 1903 and died in 1941. He was famous for being an American baseball first baseman. His entire professional career, which spanned 17 seasons, was played in the US Major League. He was part of the New York Yankees from 1923 to 1939. For his incredible talent, especially his renowned power as a hitter and his durability, he earned himself the nickname, “The Iron Horse.”
He earned the All-Star title seven times consecutively, was a Triple Crown winner at one time, and was an American League Most Valuable Player two times. He was a member of six teams in the World Series championship and hit 493 home runs in his career. In 1939, he was elected to be a part of the Baseball Hall of Fame and became the first Major League Baseball player with his uniform number, which was number 4, to be retired by a team.
With all of these prestigious accolades, no one expected the New York City native to come down with a fatal disease that would eventually take his life. That disease, as you probably already expect, was ALS. And as its most famous sufferer, many have coined the name of the disease after him. That is why you might hear ALS being referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” nearly as often – or possibly even more often – than you will hear it being referred to as its real name.
It was 1938 when Lou Gehrig began experiencing symptoms of ALS. The problem first made itself clear that same year, when he fell below .300 – the first time that had happened since 1925. When that happened, it was clear that there was something not right with the star player, and that he lacked his typical strength. His pitches that he would typically hit for home runs were flyouts. At first, he was diagnosed with a gallbladder issue. He was put on a bland diet – the effects of which only increased his weakness. His teammate, Wes Ferrell, observed that while on the golf course, Gehrig was wearing tennis shoes rather than golf cleats, and his feet were sliding along the ground. This frightened Ferrell. When manager Joe McCarthy was asked if he was going to take Gehrig out of the lineup, his answer was, “That’s Lou’s decision.”
In the following 1939 season, Lou Gehrig played in the first 8 games – and managed just four hits. On a ball hit back to pitcher Johnny Murphy, Gehrig struggled to get to first base in time to throw, and yet his fellow Yankees congratulated him on a “good play.” At that point, when his teammates congratulated him for stumbling into an average catch, he knew he needed to leave.
Doctors soon later diagnosed the player with ALS. Now, over 75 years from his death, the disease that ended his career and took his life still devastates our world. Lou Gehrig, however, did not consider himself to be a victim. Famously, on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4, 1939, he declared in his Lou Gehrig ALS speech that he was the “luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He spoke about how he was able t be in the ballparks for 17 years with nothing put kindness and encouragement from his fans, and how he was grateful for the time that he had with the sport he loved.