July 4, 1939 -- ALS, Lou Gehrig and Me
By Fay Vincent
On July 4, 1939, at Yankee Stadium, before a full house, Lou Gehrig stood in front of a microphone and announced he was “the luckiest man alive.” His somber teammates were lined up behind their captain and stellar first baseman. One of them, Tommy Henrich told me Gehrig had not planned to speak but changed his mind and broke the hearts of all who heard him. Henrich never forgot seeing Babe Ruth crying openly when he came over to hug Lou after the brief talk.
Just a few months earlier Gehrig had been forced to break his remarkable record of consecutive games when his powerful frame began to fail. His speech is still well known as the defining act of a remarkable baseball legend. Gehrig’s talk was emotional because everyone knew he was seriously ill—fans were told he had a form of “polio”-- and though his disease was then not as well understood as it is today, the public and his teammates knew he was not ever going to play again.
When he died a few years later, the disease-- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis-- was named and is still known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Ever since then, baseball and that debilitating disease have been closely linked.
My school classmate and friend Franz Opper was born on that Fourth of July in 1939 and many years later, in the midst of a busy career in Washington as an official at the SEC and on the staff of Congress, he learned he had ALS.
He and his wife Barbara stoutly confronted the illness and for many years Franz kept up a lively correspondence with me in which his letters never betrayed his declining health. When I was elected baseball Commissioner the letters took on a baseball flavor as Franz began to give me baseball advice. The letters were fun to read, full of wit and wry comments. And then came one with a serious request.
Franz asked me to try to arrange for him to come to Yankee Stadium for one final baseball game. He and Barbara knew their request was a challenge in light of what had become by then his complete disability. He was totally inert on a respirator unable to move any part of his body. He could only blink. He was able to communicate as his nurse help up the alphabet and pointed to the letters in turn until he blinked at the one he wanted to use to spell out a word. His letters were the product of determined and tedious effort.
I agreed to try to help and turned to George Steinbrenner the owner of the Yankees for assistance. And here comes a story about George that is witness to his generosity to those with acute needs. When I explained what Franz had asked and the many complexities the Yankees organization and I would have to face if we were to proceed, George was immediately supportive. “It is not going to be easy for us and him,” he responded, “ but we will help all we can.”
That was all I needed and with the deft cooperation of the Yankees, we brought Franz to a final game at the Stadium. His bed had to be tilted so he could see the field from the owner’s office Steinbrenner had made available but somehow we managed. The logistics effort was considerable but the touching letter I later received from Franz made it all worthwhile.
When I called George to thank him, he shrugged off my profuse appreciation –“I am glad it worked out for him.” I had the sense he was a bit embarrassed by letting me see his gentle side. This was not as well-known as the tough guy side. But I never forgot what he had made possible for my friend Franz.
Not long after the baseball visit, Franz died. He had endured many years of total paralysis, but never lost his good cheer.
It is impossible not to think of Franz when I see a tape of that memorable Gehrig speech at Yankee Stadium on the day he was born.
Interestingly, George Steinbrenner was born on the fourth of July as well.
It is often said baseball brings generations together. In baseball, Franz, George and I came together briefly. On this Fourth of July I will remember them and Gehrig and ALS. Presiding from the poet-- Life like baseball is a series of tragedies separated by times of sheer joy.
Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries and from 1989-92 served as the Commissioner of Baseball