Review: “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig”


(Review by Sam Grabelle, Writing Specialist and FFL Instructor with the Bryant Writing Center.)

Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig
by Jonathan Eig
(Simon & Schuster, 2005)

I am not a baseball fan and have never understood batting averages, but I have learned that baseball makes for great reading. I’m not sure there is another sport that translates as well to the page. I was surprised when Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year became one of my favorite memoirs.

When a very close family friend was diagnosed with ALS, I needed to know what it was, what it’s going to do to him, and who this man was whose name is synonymous with this still incurable disease. Jonathan Eig’s definitive biography, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig (Simon & Schuster, 2005) leaped out at me from the thrift store shelf a few weeks before I would join my friend and his incredible team of supporters at this year’s ALS Association’s Walk to D’Feet ALS. I finished the book the night before meeting everyone at the boardwalk to celebrate our nearly $10,000 fundraising success. (See a photo here.)

I felt closer to my friend after reading the book, but I also felt closer to those at the Walk who sported #4 Yankee jerseys; the first uniform number, I had just learned, to be retired with its player. The last few chapters of Eig’s book describing the progression of Gehrig’s disease were hard to get through and it is not necessary for me to review them here. What I’d like to do is share just a few of the things I learned about Lou Gehrig, the man, that have stayed with me. It is a tribute I make between the lines to the man I have known all my life and, as Eig clearly believes about Gehrig, should not ever be defined by this awful disease.

I believe that Eig gives us the greatest opportunity to remember him by something else with this simple, unadorned passage: “Gehrig, who played in more interracial games than most, was one of the few white ballplayers of his era to go on record in support of integration. ‘There is no room in baseball for discrimination,’ he said once. ‘It is our national pastime and a game for all.’ (p.109)

As a bibliophile, this understated moment is also one of my favorites: After talking to a reporter in 1936 during the All-Star Games, “Gehrig reached for the check and told [the reporter] he was eager to get back to the hotel so he could finish reading a book.” (p.211)

Eig’s book not only inspired my admiration for Lou Gehrig, the man, but also a nostalgia for a time in professional sports and celebrity way before my own.

Lou Gehrig…was a national hero and superstar athlete who enjoyed few of fame’s rewards. He exemplified the nation’s most cherished virtues. He had worked hard, climbed from poverty, and been kind to his mother. He was handsome, strong, and well behaved. Yet he had made no effort to capitalize on the Horatio Alger story that was his life. He was content to play the game he loved, play it hard, and go home to a nice, quiet dinner… [Babe] Ruth would make more money endorsing breakfast cereal than most players earned over the course of their entire careers. Gehrig had few endorsement contracts… Ruth had already been the subject of several biographies, but no one wrote books about Gehrig. (p.178)

Thank you Jonathan Eig, for writing this one.