Thursday, June 23, 2011

On the Coffee Table: Jonathan Eig

Photo of Gehrig via My Right Foot

"He really does look like Gary Cooper," My Wife noted of the cover photo.

Image of Cooper as Gehrig (The Pride of the Yankees) from GreenCine

I just finished Jonathan Eig's Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. I realized upon beginning the book that I didn't really know that much about Gehrig. I knew about his consecutive games streak. I knew about the disease that killed him and which now bears his name, but I did not realize that at 38, I have already out-lived him. I knew he was a great player but I'm not sure I'd appreciated how good he truly was: 493 homers, 1,995 RBI, .340 lifetime batting average, .447 on-base percentage and .632 slugging. Although he spent much of his career in the shadows of first Babe Ruth and later Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig was probably the best first baseman of all time. Bill James rates him as such in his Historical Baseball Abstract. He was also elected by fans as the starting first baseman on the All-Century Team in 1999. In fact, he was the overall leading vote-getter on that team.

Since his death at the age of 37 in 1941, Gehrig has come to be so much more than just a great ballplayer. Lou Gehrig is the closest thing that American sports has to a saint. He was the first baseball player ever to have his jersey number retired and the first to have his waiting period waived before being elected to the Hall of Fame. Never a media darling during his lifetime, his workmanlike approach to the game, his courage in the face of a horrifying disease and his untimely death have bestowed upon Gehrig an heroic appreciation which no other athlete can claim.

Several years ago, I read a book entitled The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment by William Stafford. Apart from debunking the various apocryphal tales surrounding the great composer, Stafford writes of the many perils of biographies in general. Among those perils is hero worship. Eig has written an excellent book but I think at times he comes dangerously close to idealizing his subject. Of course, as noted above, that's easy to do with Gehrig. He was, by all contemporary accounts, a quiet, responsible and respectable person. There were hints from his wife that perhaps his aloofness was not an ideal quality in a husband. But Gehrig never provided much tabloid fodder.

Gehrig died 70 years ago this month and, sadly, medicine still has no cure for ALS, the neurological disease which killed him. Eig, to his credit, doesn't pull any punches in his description of the disease and its agonizing toll on Gehrig and those around him. The end of the book is a tough read as a result - but important.

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