Friday, March 20, 2015

Luckiest Man by Jonathan Eig

Baseball is a game that has always had its tough side. It was, as author Jonathan Eig points out in this splendid biography of Lou Gehrig, “a game for poor immigrants and high school dropouts.” Amid the squalor of class struggles and in the shadow of the industrial revolution, baseball spread across the country and for many decades was America’s number one sport. Baseball rose above its origins and became a national past-time. Today, baseball barely holds its position in the top five, having been displaced by television’s favorites: football, basketball, hockey, and boxing.

Gone now are the thrills of summer games, made unpalatable by television, but still revered primarily by community youth programs and National Little League games. Of course, the kids get it; they always did. Picking up a new bat, and stuffing your hand into a freshly oiled gloved and kicking at the dirt with cleated shoes with a mouth full of Bazooka Joe bubble-gum is something young boys still covet. There is something memorable about a summer afternoon when your standing at bat, poised to hit that ball as hard as you can, the sun hot on your helmet and the sweat trickling down your jaw. The moment is as much about skill as it is your personal will-power, and to achieve for one shining moment something that is a little better than what you might expect. Those moments of glory are few and far between in life, but baseball offers that opportunity on the sun-swept diamonds in neighborhoods across the country.
Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio on a long ago summer's day
All of these things were flashing through my mind as I read this book. The full title is Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. Author Jonathan Eig offers two redeeming qualities that make this book a valuable addition to any library. First, he appreciates both Lou Gehrig and baseball; and secondly, he did the qualified research. The endnotes and bibliographic references are extensive. I am not a fan of biographies specifically because most of them are poisonous atrocities, but Jonathan Eig avoids all of those traps.

Baseball also offers moments of intense personal achievement, Horatio Alger characters, and the undying belief in the American Dream. Lou Gehrig’s incredible life story is all that, ending in tragedy, and now forever a part of that past when the heroes we believed in were honorable people. The book is chock full of details but never feels cumbersome, a testament to Eig’s ability to tell the story factually and cleanly.

It’s all here, all of Gehrig’s greatest moments and what a cast! Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and all of the New York Yankees at their finest hour. Gehrig’s untimely death from ALS-amyotrophic lateral schlerosis (forever known now as “Lou Gehrig’s disease) is heartbreaking. Lou Gehrig, was a celebrity who also happened to be a genuinely warm person, and his story is remarkable. This is a truly fine biography.

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