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What really killed Lou Gehrig?

8/17/2010

From Alan Schwarz, a classic example of a piece that deserves to be read in its entirety (rather than just these snippets):

    In the 71 years since the Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig declared himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” despite dying from a disease that would soon bear his name, he has stood as America’s leading icon of athletic valor struck down by random, inexplicable fate.

    A peer-reviewed paper to be published Wednesday in a leading journal of neuropathology, however, suggests that Gehrig’s demise — and that of some other athletes and soldiers given a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — might have been catalyzed by injuries only now becoming understood: concussions and other brain trauma.

    Although the paper does not discuss Gehrig specifically, its authors in interviews acknowledged the clear implication: Lou Gehrig might not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease.

    --snip--

    More than any other American athlete, perhaps even the player who eventually broke his consecutive-games streak, Cal Ripken, Lou Gehrig has come to symbolize a commitment to playing every day, especially through injuries. That renown partly derives from well-documented incidents in which he sustained significant concussions but continued to play in ways now known to be dangerous.

    --snip--

    Gehrig’s handling of injuries inspired reverence among fans and the news media. Concussions then almost resembled cigarette smoking, in that what is now known to be harmful was in Gehrig’s time considered benign, even charming. An advertisement for Camel cigarettes that filled the back page of Life Magazine included several various testimonials to “Larruping Lou’s” playing through injuries, including the 1934 incident.

    “Another time, he was knocked out by a ‘bean ball,’ yet next day walloped 3 triples in 5 innings,” the ad reads. “Gehrig’s ‘Iron-Man’ record is proof of his splendid physical condition. As Lou says: ‘All the years I’ve been playing, I’ve been careful about my physical condition. Smoke? I smoke and enjoy it. My cigarette is Camel.’ ”

The clever take is going to be -- already has been many times, I'm sure -- Lou Gehrig didn't have Lou Gehrig's Disease!

Maybe he didn't. But what's important here is that we are just now, in 2010, beginning to get a handle on concussions. Maybe. And I mean beginning. I won't be surprised if, 10 years from now, the world of contact sports looks quite a bit different than it does now. In part because of all the research that's been done lately, and in part because of all the writing that Alan Schwarz has done lately.

As you probably know, Schwarz has focused largely on concussions suffered by football players (and particularly NFL players). But as we've seen with various baseball stars in just the past year or so, baseball players are far from immune. Has anyone ever made a list of head trauma suffered by major leaguers, and attempted to measure the impacts? I've written about Pete Reiser, who was put back into the lineup by Leo Durocher far earlier, after a serious trauma in 1942, than he should have been. In this book, I argued that Don Zimmer lost the American League East title in 1978 because he put Dwight Evans back into the lineup, after a serious head trauma, than he should have been (in 20 September games, Evans made a bunch of errors and batted .164).

That sort of thing doesn't seem to happen anymore. Not in baseball, anyway. And I don't believe that the men who run the game -- owners, general managers, managers, even agents -- have gotten enough credit for this welcome change.

Meanwhile, Gehrig might be baseball's most famous victim of head trauma, but he's far from the only one. Just off the top of my head, I can name two pennant races that were lost because of managers who rushed badly concussed players back into action. I suspect there have been more.