Vahe Gregorian: The saddest anniversary in June

Lou Gehrig played final game June 12, 1939
Jun 12, 2014

As George Brett considers Lou Gehrig’s piercing “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech from Yankee Stadium 75 years ago next month, he recalls choking up over it.

“It might be the most recognizable sentence in a speech ever given by a sports figure. Ever,” Brett said.

Gehrig’s grace in the face of the unspeakably sinister disease that had invaded his body makes Tom Watson “cry every time I see it.”

But Brett and Watson’s emotional reactions to Gehrig’s plight and courage are attached to something much more direct and personal, something that mirrors a more elusive trivia question:

Where did Gehrig play his last game?

It’s widely believed that Gehrig played his last game on April 30, 1939, when his average had tumbled to .143 after he went hitless in his 2,130th straight start.

In the Yankees’ next game, two days later in Detroit, Gehrig benched himself “for the good of the team.”

He had taken his last at-bat in the major leagues.

But he managed to play once more in Yankee pinstripes.

On June 12, 1939, 75 years ago this week, with two off-days scheduled after a series at the St. Louis Browns, the Yankees took the train west for an exhibition against the Kansas City Blues, their Class AA farm team.

Weak and wracked with pain as Gehrig was, he was still the Yankees’ captain, still traveling and delivering the lineup card to home plate before every game up to his scheduled appointment June 13 at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Only a day before his arrival there for the momentous diagnosis, Gehrig somehow mustered the energy to play three innings in the field and take an at-bat because of the turnout of 23,864 at Municipal Stadium (then known as Ruppert Stadium).

With the likes of Joe DiMaggio playing center field for the Yankees and Phil Rizzuto playing shortstop for the Blues, Gehrig batted eighth and tapped a meek grounder to second base.

Reflecting the ravages of the disease, it made for a mean, incongruous ending to an illustrious career.

Soon Gehrig was at Kansas City’s Union Station, bound for Minnesota as his teammates returned to New York.

“I guess everybody wonders where I’m going,” he said then, according to The Star. “But I can’t help believe there’s something wrong with me. It’s not conceivable that I could go to pieces so suddenly.

“I feel fine, feel strong and have the urge to play, but without warning this year I’ve apparently collapsed.

“I’d like to play some more, and I want somebody to tell me what’s wrong.”

Six days later, he was told.

Less than two years later, on June 2, 1941, Gehrig died.

What was wrong was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known today as ALS and, of course, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

As explained by the ALS Association, it’s a “progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body.

“The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost . . .”

ALS is not contagious but can strike anyone and almost always kills.

It’s estimated to afflict as many as 30,000 Americans at any given time.

If you’ve seen someone in its deepest throes, you might wonder what it’s like to be buried alive and if there is any worse fate.

But at least in part because it is less prevalent than, for instance, cancer, research for cures is far less well-funded. And much about the disease still seems enshrouded in mystery.

That’s why enhanced awareness is so crucial, why 75 years later the ALS Association hopes one day to “name a cure” instead of a disease after Gehrig, and why the organization urges people to “speak up now to give hope.”

And it’s to help give hope that Watson, Brett and Chiefs general manager John Dorsey agreed to speak about their own intimate experiences with ALS.

Dorsey had scant notion of what ALS meant when he learned in the late 1990s that his mother, Jeanne, was suffering from it.

“You heard about it, but you didn’t know actually about it,” he said last week. “When you begin to do your studying and your research, then you can intellectually understand it.

“But until you’ve seen it emotionally and what it does to a family, then you also feel it as well. . . . Because you see, as I looked at it, a very strong woman who became a shell of herself. At the end of the process, she was basically trapped with her mind fully functional.

“You never want to see your parent like that at the end of their life. That’s the emotional part of it; you have that lasting picture in your head of how she was at the end, and that was just one part of her life.

“And then you reflect back on her as a mother and as a lady and” — here he paused for a moment — “you know, it’s heartfelt.”

Part of the cruelty of the disease is the stages that become harbingers to the inevitable next phases.

“It slowly progressed down her body where you began to see it,” he said. “Then you saw the slurred speech, then all of a sudden, you saw the muscles begin to (weaken).

“Then all of a sudden, you try to take her for a walk in the wheelchair, and then she was on a respirator there towards the end. That’s when it really starts to become emotional.”

This preceded technology that enabled those suffering with ALS to use their eyes to scan a computer screen to type, a remarkable but painstaking power that also fades as eye muscles erode.

Even that remarkable enhancement is acutely painful to see at first, but it’s infinitely better than the sense of limbo of seeing sufferers able only to blink their eyes to acknowledge understanding.

“That was the hard part,” Dorsey said.

The family couldn’t have gotten better medical attention than it did through the ALS Clinic at Johns Hopkins University, he said, but that led to another searing part of the dilemma of ALS.

“That kept her alive for extra months,” Dorsey said, “which was good and bad.”

With no cure on the horizon, after all, beyond a certain point there is only the agonizing truth: no obvious immediate hope versus the torment of how to proceed.

“What each spouse has to do as you go through life and your marriage . . . (is) talk to each other and say, ‘OK, in case of catastrophic illness, this is what I would like for you to do,’ ” Dorsey said.

Dorsey’s mother died in 2001, some 18 to 24 months after she was known to have the disease that he said left “an imprint on your mind that lasts forever” and that he seeks to contribute to fighting.

Shortly after Watson’s caddie, Bruce Edwards, was diagnosed with ALS at the Mayo Clinic in January 2003, he called Watson.

“And he said, ‘I just made a quad,’ ” Watson recently recalled. “In golfing parlance, that’s a quadruple bogey. That’s a terrible score to get.

“I said, ‘We’re going to beat this thing and get back to even.’ ”

Even as Edwards was being seized in its clutches, he became a stirring symbol as he continued for months to caddie for Watson.

Soon before he died on April 8, 2004, Watson told him, “I’ll work on this and try to find a cure for the rest of my life.”

Watson is no less resolute about the cause today, spurred by Edwards but further so because of other victims he’s come to know since.

“I can’t tell you enough how heartbreaking it is,” he said.

But it’s apparent from Watson’s charitable work with the Bruce Edwards Foundation for ALS Research, the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins and his annual anchoring with Brett of the Joe McGuff ALS Golf Classic, (named now for the beloved Star writer and editor who died from ALS in 2006.)

It’s also evident from the investment Watson has made in learning about the disease, a level of sophistication that falls short of medical knowledge but dazzles Brett.

“He’s got a Stanford education, and he understands the disease and all the trials that they’re doing,” Brett said. “When he reads a medical journal or just a report, he can understand it a little. That stuff’s like so vague to me, I have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Watson downplays that, but he acknowledges he thinks it’s important to be somewhat conversant in the disease to help raise funds.

That accounts for why he recently tried to absorb as much as he could during a visit by ALS Association chief scientist Lucie Bruijn to the McGuff tournament.

“They have this gene that they have identified that is in 40 percent of the cases in people who have ALS, and that gene mutates in a lot of different ways that they still don’t understand,” he said. “But they think they have a handle on at least that the gene is there, and they’re trying to identify what is causing the gene to do this terrible job of killing people.

“And right now . . . they’re hoping they’re going to find a cocktail of drugs that at least will slow it down.”

More centralized and collaborative approaches and the budding interest of big pharma offer some reason for optimism, Watson said, though he acknowledged for the moment, “we’re still stuck right now where we are.”

But Watson still hears Edwards saying he would try everything and anything, not just in hope of saving himself but of saving others.

“ ‘I’ve got to try ’em. If I’m going to die, I’m going to try things,’ ” Watson recalled him saying. “ ‘Maybe something’s going to work. I’ll be the guinea pig. Give me the stuff. If it kills me, it kills me.’ ”

So he won’t ever quit on it either.

Not long after Brett arrived in Kansas City in 1973, he was enlisted to do fashion shots for a promotion for Woolf Bros., an upscale clothing store on The Plaza.

That’s when he met Keith Worthington, a Prairie Village resident and the store’s vice president.

“He had just come off the tennis court, and he was still sweating in his (business) suit,” Brett said.

Worthington was always so active that Brett figured there was a simple explanation when he saw him some time later with a cane.

“I said, ‘What’s wrong, did you hurt your leg?’ ” Brett said. “And he goes, ‘I’ve got some disease.’ ”

It was, in fact, ALS. Brett didn’t immediately know what to make of it.

“Then I saw him go from a cane to crutches,” Brett said. “Then I saw him from crutches to a wheelchair, then wheelchair to the respirator. . . .

“It’s terrifying to watch what this person goes through. Because your mind is still so very active. And your body just shuts down.”

Worthington lived until 1984, almost 12 years after he had been diagnosed and about six years after he and his wife, Sue, conducted the first ALS support group meeting in the region.

Now the ALS Association chapter named for Worthington has grown exponentially, reflecting the spirit of the man Brett befriended.

“This is what really got me hooked on this: He said, ‘I know they’ll never find a cure in my lifetime,’ “ Brett recalled. “ ‘All I’ve been trying to do is help raise money for fund raising to save others.’ “

So Brett takes this to heart, mindful of the need for research and expensive equipment that few could afford and “and to try to make their lives as comfortable as they can for their family.”

If Worthington’s inspiring sentiments seem much like those of Edwards’, Brett has seen a commonality in the many ALS sufferers he’s met since.

“They keep their heads held high throughout the whole thing,” he said, in amazement.

And, of course, even when they no longer literally can do that.

The spirit reminds him of former Royals teammate Dan Quisenberry a few weeks before he died from a brain tumor in 1998.

“I asked Dan, ‘You ever ask yourself, Why me?’ ” Brett recalled. “And he says, ‘No. I say, ‘Why not me? I can handle it.’

“He said, ‘Why . . . not . . . me?’ And I started bawling.”

It comes with the topic, of course.

As the conversation winds down, Brett was asked if he had any final thoughts about ALS or Gehrig or Worthington.

“No. I’m good,” he said. “I don’t want to start crying.”

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