Lou Gehrig called it a bad break, but we all know it was much more than that. One of the most talented ballplayers in history, Gehrig played 2,130 consecutive games, held the 1934 Triple Crown and has a lifetime batting average of .340.
In 1939 fans could tell something was wrong. His numbers quickly dropped, his power was gone. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed the American sports hero with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease known as ALS.
Weeks later on July 4, 1939, Gehrig stood at home plate of Yankee’s Stadium and made one of the most poignant speeches in sports. His farewell to baseball.
In part, it read: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”
When someone has ALS their brain stops sending messages to their muscles to work. Eventually, the muscle atrophy leaves the person without the ability to move, walk and in a lot of cases, communicate. There is no known cure for ALS. There is no known cause. Once diagnosed, the average prognosis is 2 to 5 years.
73 years later, Major League Baseball continues to honor Gehrig’s contributions to the game and his legacy. But the sad truth is ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease as it’s commonly known now, is far more reaching within the sport.
The ALS Association estimates 500 people in Minnesota and the upper Midwest are living with the relentless disease. One of those people was Kent Hrbek’s father. Back in 1982, at the age of 52, his father Ed died from ALS. It was Hrbek’s rookie season with the Twins. He immediately became an advocate and lent his name to the personal cause.
“Back in ’82, no one knew what you were talking about when you said ALS,” Hrbek recalled. “We really changed that, we’re really trying to change that.”
Hrbek and his wife, Jeanie, founded the ALS Association of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Minnesota Twins have been a longtime supporter of their former first baseman’s quest. The relationship continues with former catcher and current coach with the club, Terry Steinbach whose father’s battled the disease.
The ALS Association supports patients and their families. There are several programs that allow people with ALS to live more easily with the disease. They include a medical equipment loan pool, an assistance communication program and support for caregivers.
Those programs aren’t possible without financial support. Major League Baseball, for instance, has a Strikeout ALS program, where money is donated to local ALS organizations for each home team strike out. Above that, Hrbek and ALS Minnesota organize additional events, including a fishing tournament, golf outings, races and a snowmobile tour.
The 2014 Black Woods Blizzard Tour is what brought Hrbek out to Target Field Thursday afternoon. Registration is now open for largest snowmobile fundraising event in the world. It’s a three day tour of some of the greatest trails in Minnesota. He and former teammate Tim Laudner met with fans outside Target Field, selling autographed baseballs and raffle tickets, all of the proceeds went towards ALS Minnesota.
The Minnesota regional chapter is the third largest in the country in terms of fundraising. But Hrbek says it’s not enough.
“You feel happy you’re raising all sorts of money. But it’s sad because they’re not making any strides,” Hrbek said. “Of course I’m not a doctor. I can’t go and figure out a cure. But I’m helping raise money to support them. They’re the ones that do the work.”
My connection with ALS is a personal one. Michael Winston, a very close family friend, got the diagnosis in 2008. He passed way a few weeks ago over Labor Day weekend at the age of 29.
In 2010, ALS Minnesota asked Winston to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Twins game. I got to be on the field for that memorable night, I’ll never forget it. Putting such a young face on this dreadful disease exposed people to the fact more and more young people are being diagnosed.
Winston was brave in his battle, frequently educating others and advocating for its cure. I once asked if it was hard to do that. He told me, no. He did it so people could see what living with ALS means and why donating money is so vital to finding a cure.
In a video reflecting on his life with ALS, Wintson made a sobering realization that’s stayed with me. “I have the same life expectancy as Lou Gehrig did,” he said. “They’ve cured and treated so many diseases since then, but here I am, expected to live the same amount of time as the person they named it after.”
In 1939, a misty eyed Gehrig told fans “I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
More than seven decades later, Winston and everyone who’s received the same diagnosis has had a lot to live for too. We watched Winston live with dignity and purpose. It’s a lesson all his young 20-something year old friends and family have reflected on and will continue to learn from.
That’s why supporting groups like the ALS Association are so important. They help patients live with the disease, rather than wait to die from it.
So for now we wait. We wait for a treatment and we wait for a cure. Once that happens, Hrbek says there will be one big celebration.
“Someday, Dave St. Peter from the Twins told me I can use the stadium,” he said. “If we find a cure for ALS, we’re going to throw one heck of a party here at Target Field.”
And that’s one party worth waiting for.