Of ice bucket challenges and ‘Iron Horse’

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Ed C. Tolentino

Ed C. Tolentino

The “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” was destined to be a hit from the moment Hollywood celebrities started doing it. However, lost in the frenzy created by the challenge is the purpose behind the undertaking.

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ALS stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a disease that causes the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord to shrink and disappear, resulting in the muscles no longer receiving signals to move. As the muscles become smaller and weaker, the body gradually becomes paralyzed. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is 3 to 5 years.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was created to bring awareness and at the same time raise funds (hence the cliché “nominate and donate”) for the people suffering from the deadly disease. The cold water poured into one’s head provides for a “brain freeze” effect of some sort, giving emphasis to the ordeal a patient with ALS goes through.

While awareness on the silent horrors of ALS has tremendously increased because of the ice bucket challenges, it was actually a baseball player who made the world take note of the disease back in the 1930s.

ALS is often called Lou Gehrig’s disease after Lou Gehrig, a hall-of-fame baseball player for the New York Yankees who was diagnosed with ALS in the 1930s. The son of an alcoholic metal sheet worker, Gehrig first earned the attention of the scouts in June 1920, when he hit a grandslam at a major league park at age 17. Gehrig attended Columbia University on a football scholarship and was leaning on pursuing a degree in engineering when he was convinced by then New York Giants manager John McGraw to play summer league baseball under the alias Henry Lewis.

In 1923, Gehrig suited up for the New York Yankees. Within four years, he would form with Babe Ruth the most devastating hitting tandem in major league baseball. Gehrig’s .361 batting average in seven World Series propelled the Yankees to six titles.

Gehrig was hailed as the “Iron Horse” of baseball because of his uncanny durability. Between 1925 and 1939, he played in 2,130 consecutive games, unparalleled at the time. Gehrig was once knocked out unconscious by a pitch but still remained in the game. Historians however say that Gehrig’s obsession on extending the streak may have led to him developing ALS. In one game in 1934, he suffered a crippling lower back injury which might have been the first sign of the deadly disease.

Gehrig was forced to end the streak and his career altogether in 1939, when his speed and coordination drastically deteriorated. The streak officially ended in May 1939, when a dissipated Gehrig volunteered to bench himself. He never played another game of baseball as his health continued to deteriorate. Gehrig underwent a plethora of tests to determine what was wrong with him and on June 19, 1939, on his 36th birthday, Gehrig was officially diagnosed with ALS. On June 21, 1939, the Yankees announced Gehrig’s retirement. On July 4, 1939, at the famed Yankee Stadium, “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” was held with over 60,000 fans giving Gehrig one of the most emotional farewells in sports. In December 1939, a special election was held and Gehrig was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

On June 2, 1941, some two years after Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS, the “Iron Horse” of baseball passed away. Gehrig’s widow, Eleanor, who did not bear the baseball star a child, never remarried and spent the remaining years of her life to support ALS research.

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For comment, the writer can be reached at atty_eduardo@yahoo.com.

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