Photo by Lytle
On July 4, 1939, at Yankee Stadium, before a full house, Lou Gehrig stood in front of a microphone and announced he was “the luckiest man alive.” His somber New York teammates were lined up behind their captain and stellar first baseman.
One of them, Tommy Henrich, told me Gehrig had not planned to speak but changed his mind and broke the hearts of all who heard him. Henrich never forgot seeing Babe Ruth crying openly when he came over to hug Lou after the brief talk.
Just a few months earlier Gehrig had been forced to break his remarkable record of consecutive games when his powerful frame began to fail. His speech is still well-known as the defining act of a remarkable baseball legend. Gehrig’s talk was emotional because everyone knew he was seriously ill — fans were told he had a form of “polio” — and although his disease was then not as well understood as it is today, the public and his teammates knew he was not ever going to play again. When he died a few years later, the disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — was named and is still known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Ever since then, baseball and that debilitating disease have been closely linked.
My classmate and friend Franz Opper was born that Fourth of July, and many years later, in the midst of a busy career in Washington as an official at the Securities and Exchange Commission and on the staff of Congress, he learned he had ALS. He and his wife, Barbara, stoutly confronted the illness, and for many years Franz kept up a lively correspondence with me in which his letters never betrayed his declining health.
When I was elected baseball commissioner, the letters took on a baseball flavor as Franz began to give me baseball advice. The letters were fun to read, full of wit and wry comments. And then came one with a serious request.
Franz asked me to try to arrange for him to come to Yankee Stadium for one final baseball game. He and Barbara knew their request was a challenge in light of what had become by then his complete disability. He was totally inert on a respirator, unable to move any part of his body. He could only blink. He was able to communicate as his nurse held up the alphabet and pointed to the letters in turn until he blinked at the one he wanted to use to spell out a word. His letters were the product of determined and tedious effort. I agreed to help and turned to George Steinbrenner, the owner of the Yankees. George was immediately supportive.
“It is not going to be easy for us and him,” he responded, showing his generosity, “but we will help all we can.”
That was all I needed and with the deft cooperation of the Yankees, we brought Franz to a final game at the stadium. His bed had to be tilted so he could see the field from the owner’s office Steinbrenner had made available. The logistics effort was considerable but the touching letter I later received from Franz made it all worthwhile.
When I called George to thank him, he shrugged off my profuse appreciation: “I am glad it worked out for him,” George said. I had the sense he was a bit embarrassed by letting me see his gentle side. This was not as well-known as the tough-guy side. But I never forgot what he had made possible for my friend.
Not long after the visit, Franz died. He had endured many years of total paralysis, but never lost his good cheer. It is impossible not to think of Franz when I see a tape of Gehrig’s memorable speech on the day Franz was born. Interestingly, George Steinbrenner was born on the Fourth of July as well.
It is often said baseball brings generations together. In baseball, Franz, George and I came together briefly. On this Fourth of July I will remember them, Gehrig and ALS.
From the poet: Life, like baseball, is a series of tragedies separated by times of sheer joy.
Vincent is former commissioner of Major League Baseball.