The Luckiest Man
By Trevor Hayes
About a week ago, I finished reading Luckiest Man by Jonathan Eig. I got the book in November during the Hall of Fame’s Character and Courage statue unveiling. The event honored three men who deserve a special place in the Hall of Fame. Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig now greet every visitor who enters the Museum, reminding them of the values we baseball fans admire.
Compared to the encyclopedias I work with, I’m very much a baseball history novice — actually strike that, and we’ll call it like it is: I’m a baseball novice. In the weeks prior to Character and Courage Weekend, I heard a great deal about these men. Before arriving in Cooperstown, I knew about Jackie and the color barrier, and I’d heard a little about Clemente. Gehrig, however, was just the guy who played with Babe Ruth. He had a disease named after him, but the biggest thing I recognized him for was holding the record that Cal Ripken Jr. broke.
That’s a vivid memory for me. I watched Ripken beat the streak on a TV in a bowling alley in Kansas City. The bartender let me sneak in to watch Chirs Berman’s call. Despite being only 10, I think she knew I needed to see what was happening, even if I didn’t understand it. For some time now, I have understood the magnitude of the streak. It started two years before I was born and when it was over, I was 14. I know it may be one of baseball’s unbreakable marks. But now, the important thing for me about Ripken’s streak is the man who came before Cal.
My baseball career ended in middle school after a broken finger and a broken nose. Gehrig played with broken fingers and didn’t notice them. That’s just the tip of it with Gehrig. He literally played until he couldn’t. ALS sapped his ability and withered his strength. He continued to play every game in 1938, despite starting to lose muscle mass as early as the winter before that season.
ALS strikes quickly and attacks the extremities and coordination first. Gehrig almost immediately lost his baseball skills. Throughout the book, Gehrig was both human and hero. Once he was diagnosed, he became a human, stripped of the athleticism that made him special. But at the same time, he wasn’t. He came to terms with his affliction; he never let it deter his spirit. The way he dealt with his “bad break” — as he referred to it during his farewell speech — is an inspiration that can be admired today.
At 24, I am still finding baseball heroes, and with the 70th anniversary of his final season and his unforgettable speech approaching, I am going to remember Gehrig’s character and courage.
Trevor Hayes is the editorial production manager at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.