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MLB fights ALS

On July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium, Lou Gehrig closed his “Luckiest Man” speech with this line, “So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

Prior to this, Lou Gehrig was having a stellar career with the Yankees. In 1925 he began what was later called the Iron Man Streak, playing in 2129 consecutive games. He earned two MVP awards (1927, 1936) and was in the top five of MVP voting in eight different seasons. He finished his career with 493 homers and 1995 RBIs. He is arguably considered to be the best first baseman to ever play the position. And while Gehrig is known for his baseball accomplishments, he is also the name in front of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). ALS was the only thing that ever slowed Lou down. Now he is remembered for his extraordinary talents on the field, as well as for the disease that took them away. After retiring from baseball in 1939 and being inducted into the Hall of Fame through a special election, Gehrig passed away from ALS in 1941 at the age of 37. 

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Lou Gehrig. Photo from www.lougehrig.com

Like many things, ALS has progressed and made its way into the 21st century, its link to Major League Baseball still palpable over the decades. In 2017 MLB announced it was supporting The ALS Association’s Home Health Initiative by starting a campaign called MLB Fights ALS. MLB was a league wide fundraising effort that was promoted throughout ballparks, by MLB media assets, and YouCaring.com. It started with an initial $50,000 donation from MLB. It’s goal was to generate more funds to help Home Help Initiative provide in home care to patients and their families affected by ALS.

In 2017, Commissioner Rob Manfred told MLB.com, “Because of Lou Gehrig, baseball has long had a connection to the fight against ALS. In his memory, we are proud to assist ALS patients and families in carrying the enormous financial burden of living with the disease that bears his name. We encourage our fans to join us in helping ALS patients receive the best care possible.”

According to MLB.com, The ALS Home Health Initiative and the MLB Fights ALS campaign (#MLBFightsALS) were inspired by Pete Frates, a standout Boston College baseball player diagnosed with ALS in 2012 and the driving force behind the viral Ice Bucket Challenge. His version of the challenge went viral. Frates went on to complete the challenge again, this time at Fenway Park with members of the Boston Red Sox organization. The Ice Bucket Challenge went on to help raise more than $100 million towards fighting ALS. The money raised helped scientists discover a new gene tied to ALS. Sadly, Pete passed away from the disease on December 9, 2019 at 34 years old. He is survived by his parents, his wife and daughter, as well as his brother and sister. 

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Pedro Martinez with Pete Frates before the Red Sox home opener in 2015. Photo from the Boston Globe by Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Still in 2017, across the country ALS was intertwining itself with MLB even more. Oakland A’s player Stephen Piscotty’s mother, Gretchen, was diagnosed. Piscotty was playing for the St. Louis Cardinals at the time. He felt helpless being so far from his family. In an unusual move, the Cardinals traded Piscotty to the A’s. The trade made sense for all involved business wise, but it was also to allow Piscotty to be closer to his mother who lived in Pleasanton, California, roughly 30 miles outside of Oakland. Because of the trade, Stephen was able to spend crucial time with his mother and his family before his mother passed away in May of 2018. 

After Gretchen passed away, the Piscotty family started the ALS Cure Project to fund research. Other MLB players such as Yu Darvish and Jon Lester were quick to support and donate. Piscotty told the Seattle Times in July, “Our mission is to find a cure. My mom, when she was ill, was always very open to people who wanted to come in and document her situation. She felt if we could raise awareness, the day would come when others would not have to suffer. I’m trying hard to carry that torch and continue the attitude she had. It’s tough. It’s not an easy problem. There’s a lot to it. But all you can do is try.” 

And in July, because of that devotion to finding a cure for ALS, Piscotty was awarded the Hutch Award by Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The Hutch Award goes to the major-leaguer who best represents the honor, courage, and dedication of former major league pitcher and manager Fred Hutchinson. The Seattle native Hutchison died of cancer at age 45. Piscotty and his family continue to fundraise and raise awareness to ALS via the ALS Cure Project.

A catcher in the Brewers organization is doing his part to shed light on the deadly disease that has impacted his family as well. Jacob Nottingham lost his grandmother, Nancy, to ALS and he was a freshman in high school when the illness took his Aunt Laurie as well. Three summers ago he met others affected by ALS when the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers held an ALS awareness night at the ballpark. Meeting others who have been impacted by ALS was something that stuck with him. Nottingham, who debuted with the Brewers in 2018, hopes to one day establish his own foundation to raise money to search for a cure and to spread awareness of ALS.

It’s clear that the fight against ALS is also MLB’s fight. It’s a disease that has woven its way into the community. Players and families alike are using their platforms to help others so that one day no one else will have to go through the process of losing someone to this awful neurodegenerative disease, along with the major financial burdens that they are left with in the aftermath. What started with Lou Gehrig’s Luckiest Man speech has led to organizations like ALS Home Health Initiative and the ALS Cure Project are doing important work in honor of those who came before in the hopes that one day ALS will be gone and won’t ever come back. There is work to do and it’s past time that we get it done.

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