CHARLOTTE, NC, December 4, 2016 – On the fourth of July in 1939 New York Yankees first basemen Lou Gehrig said “Goodbye” to major league baseball in front of a standing room only crowd at Yankee Stadium. Described by many as the “Gettysburg Address” of baseball, Gehrig’s poignant words are among the most remembered farewells in sports history.
Standing at home plate, Gehrig’s words echoed throughout the three tiered stadium known as “The House that Ruth Built”; “Today-ay-ay, I consider myself-elf-elf, the luckiest man-an-an on the face of the earth-rth-rth.”
Earlier in the year, the man known as “The Iron Horse” for his amazing record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Such an impact did the incurable disease have on sports fans of the day, that today ALS is also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
As a youngster born in Massachusetts and growing up in New Jersey in a day when baseball was king, I was outnumbered by my friends for by my loyalty to the Boston Red Sox when New York City claimed the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Giants and, of course, the Yankees.
The stars of my day were Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Ted Williams. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were familiar memories of another historic era.
For as long as I can remember playing professional baseball was the thing I wanted to do more than anything else. The contemporary stars and those of yesteryear were more than mere bubble gum card faces, they lived and breathed the dreams of every kid in my neighborhood.
So when I relived newsreels of Gehrig’s final words to his fans that he “considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” it was incomprehensible that a young ball player with a fatal disease considered himself “lucky.”
When I was 17, my dream came true when I signed a bonus contract with the Milwaukee Braves. At that time, America was mired in a nasty conflict in Viet Nam and the following year the Braves moved their home to Atlanta.
The combination of the Braves cutting back its minor league rosters and my 1-A draft status was not conducive to pursuing a lengthy professional baseball career. Though I continued playing ball for three more seasons, including two in the St. Louis Cardinals organization under the leadership of future Hall of Fame manager George “Sparky” Anderson, by the time I was 21 my baseball days were over.
I went back to school, got my degree in journalism at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and went into broadcasting.
In those days there were no 24-hour round-the-clock television stations and certainly nothing called ESPN. I decided that doing sports from the perspective of someone who had actually played professional athletics could bring new and different insights into local television news.
During a conversation one afternoon, my news director suggested that I work out with the Class AA Charlotte baseball team affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles. As the dialogue continued we eventually decided that if the Charlotte O’s agreed I would play one home game with them and take a road trip that would become a documentary about the struggles of life in minor league baseball.
It had been ten years since I played competitive professional baseball. I was 31 years old and I would be playing at a level higher than I ever achieved during my actual baseball career.
I agreed to do it as long as the station promised not to hype the game in advance as a publicity stunt. I wanted it to be as close to actual game conditions as possible. With that stipulation I signed a contract for one dollar, and found myself in the starting line-up playing left field against the White Sox AA farm team.
The station supplied three cameramen to document the game and I was connected with a wireless microphone to pick up comments and the on-field sounds of the game.
By the fourth inning, I was playing my natural position at first base.
Batting ninth in the line-up I struck out, grounded back to the pitcher, struck out again and then, in the ninth inning, slapped a line drive single to left field to drive in one of the two runs we scored in a 6-2 loss. Defensively, we also turned a double play on the infield.
For ten years I had lived with agonizing doubts that I could have played at a higher level had circumstances not dictated otherwise. And then, in one glorious nine innings, I proved to myself that I could do it. Now I was, at long last, able to close the book on a chapter of my life to which I could never return.
As I walked up the ramp into the clubhouse, listening to the clickety-clack of my spikes on the concrete for one last delicious moment, I thought about Lou Gehrig and the speech he made in 1939.
Though my career was light-years from that of Gehrig’s. there are some ironies that I still hold dear. We both batted left handed and we both played first base. Gehrig went to spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida and discovered that he was losing his strength at Al Lang Field where the Yankees trained.
I played in the longest continuous baseball game in history at Al Lang Field and the second longest professional baseball game in history in 1966.
Gehrig holds the second longest continuous playing streak in history behind Cal Ripken who broke his mark at 2,632 games.
When Ripken played in Charlotte, I covered his games. Today, Ripken and I are among only 6 players who ever batted 13 or more times in a single professional baseball game.
At the end of my documentary about minor league baseball which was called “Diamond Are Not Forever” I referred to Lou Gehrig’s speech and how I thought taking control of my own baseball career in some small way paralleled what he was alluding to when he said “Goodbye” in New York.
But maybe I did not. Not then. But I do now.
My career has taken me far away from the baseball field. I now travel, and write about it. But now I am on a new journey. I was recently diagnosed with ALS, and now I understand exactly what Lou Gehrig meant.