Book Review: "Luckiest Man"

It being a slow holiday weekend, there's nothing better than to sit down with a good book, and that's what Jonathan Eig's "Luckiest Man" is.

Actually, I've been plowing through this one slowly over the last few weeks -- it's been out for several months, but during the season, there's not much time to savor a terrific book such as Eig's.

You all know, I'm sure, the story of Gehrig and how his career was cut short by the disease that now bears his name (except in Europe, apparently, where Eig reminds us that it's still mostly known as Charcot's disease, after the doctor who first identified it).

What is difficult to recall for us, sitting here more than sixty years after Gehrig's death at the ridiculously young age of 38, is how big a baseball star he really was -- and not just in the major leagues with the Yankees. Gehrig was a star in high school, and the book describes in detail the mammoth home run he hit in Wrigley Field, of all places, when he was a high school ballplayer. There's also an amusing anecdote regarding that home run, which I won't ruin for you.

But Eig also shows how Gehrig came out of the shadow of Babe Ruth, who eclipsed him not only in baseball production, but in the way he lived the life of a "star". Only after Ruth's retirement did Gehrig come out of his shy shell and become the big star of the Yankees; Gehrig had also been very shy in his personal life, dominated by his mother -- he didn't marry till fairly late in life and then his wife also helped bring him out of his shell.

The book also gives you, the reader, a very good image of how life was lived by Gehrig's family (and people in general in the early 1900's), who came from VERY modest means, and lived that way even long after Lou began making big-time money.

Eig quotes Bill James, who points out that had Gehrig played till age 42 (and Gehrig himself had hinted he wanted to play that long, although considering the sort of person he was, my guess is that he'd have enlisted in the military after Pearl Harbor), he projected to hit 689 HR, have 3928 hits, and hold the RBI and walk records, as well as have played in 2500 or more consecutive games -- which would have meant that Cal Ripken would have had to play three more seasons than he did, to break the record. It's noted, too, that Gehrig came under the same sort of criticism that Ripken did near the end of his streak, for continuing it at times when he appeared to be doing it for his benefit alone.

Of course, that was before it was known that ALS was beginning to take his life, which, looking back, probably began to affect him as much as two years before it was diagnosed.

Incidentally, Eig, whose main work is for the Wall Street Journal, lives in Chicago.

Lou Gehrig was a great man, not just a great baseball player. If you've forgotten how great -- or if you never knew -- read this book.

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