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Monday, June 29, 2009

Baseball, Lou Gehrig, and Disability History

Growing up I loved baseball. I collected baseball cards, memorized statistics of my favorite players and team, the New York Mets. I played baseball at every opportunity and was a pretty good pitcher, My hero as a child was Tom Seaver, a highly touted prospect signed by the Mets when they were truly the worst team in baseball. One of my first indelible memories was the 1969 World Series. The Mets won the series in seven games and my father had eight tickets to the game. I did not go because I was sick but my siblings brought home a patch of grass from the outfield. I was allowed to plant the grass in our front yard, a ceremony that helped me over come my grief that I did not get to see the game.

The point of the above is that more than just a personal element of my life, baseball reflects the fabric of American society. This observation is far from original and came to me this weekend when I realized we were nearing the 70th anniversary of the most famous speech ever made in baseball. Here I refer to Lou Gehrig's brief farewell speech made July 4, 1939. Aside from Gehrig's quiet dignity, reputation for hard work, including playing 2,130 games in a row, his speech became legend in part because of Gary Cooper. The film, Pride of the Yankees, became a classic, watched by millions of people, myself included. This past weekend baseball honored Gehrig at 15 games where his speech was was read during the 7th inning stretch. This, I thought, was a weak honor at best and got me thinking about Gehrig's legacy.

Most know Gehrig died shortly after he retired. In fact he died within two years of his retirement from ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, widely known as Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS remains a devastating diagnosis and is inevitably a fatal condition. Indeed Gehrig never got to celebrate his 38th birthday. When Gehrig died people were stunned. How could the Iron Man of baseball die at such a young age? Gehrig was thought to be indestructible, tough as nails. Gehrig was tough but no person can overcome ALS. Overcome, a world I truly despise when it comes to disability. Why do I despise the word overcome? In terms of disability there is nothing to overcome. If I must overcome anything, it is bigotry and ignorance. Thus I am torn by Gehrig's legacy in disability history. Through no fault of his own, he has become a symbol of the belief that anyone can be struck down by disability in the prime of their life. That is disability is a tragedy, one that can be fatal as in Gehrig's case, or just as bad, render one permanently disabled. This sort of antiquated thinking is as prevalent today as it was in 1939. It is effectively used to raise money for ALS research and a host of other causes. On the positive side, Gehrig put a face on an obscure disease, one that was not studied because it was inevitably fatal. Gehrig may or may not have known he was dying. But what he did without question was live life to the fullest. For some with ALS, Gehrig's dignity is inspiring. He is inspiring not because he overcame his condition, this was and remains impossible, but rather he adapted. Legend has it Gehrig never complained about his disability and his inability to do ordinary things like walk, tie his shoes, or climb the stairs of his home. Gehrig was not defiant as some have maintained. Instead, he gracefully accepted a grim reality, one that would quickly claim his life. But he continued to live as many people with a disability have done so before and since Gehrig's untimely death. Thus it is not one's inevitable death or disability that is the problem but society's unwillingness to accept the fact that for some disability will become a part of life. This never ceases to amaze me given the prevalence of disability, especially as we humans live longer lives. Stigma persists and clings to disability. Such stigma is like velcro, strong and unable to rip away without great effort. A point that Gehrig realized 70 years ago as is evidenced by the fact he hated overly sentimental displays of affection. You see he realized that life with or without a disability was a gift. He realized he was to use his own words was "the luckiest man on the earth".

1 comment:

FridaWrites said...

Excellent writing--I found myself wanting to know more about him recently. That's a really difficult illness and disability to accept, if not the most, and yet he did so.