Friday, February 16, 2007

Book Review - Luckiest Man, by Jonathan Eig

Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig

I was given this book as a holiday present in 2005, and I put off reading it for two main reasons: one, I had read Ray Robinson's "Iron Horse" book relatively recently at the time, and two, reading about Lou Gehrig can be awfully depressing. But the Rattler Radio blog, which covers the Mariners minor league Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, has been putting up excerpts of "Luckiest Man" all winter, and so early last week I decided to start immersing myself in the world of Lou Gehrig for an hour a day while riding the bus to and from work.

Reading this book is a lot like watching the movie Titanic, only it doesn't suck. Titanic, in all fairness, was a beautifully crafted work, with gorgeous sets reconstructing the extravagant ship. The first two hours of the movie set up the plot and the romance amidst wonderful scenery. But everyone knows what happened to the Titanic -- and when the iceberg hits the ship, you know you're in for another hour of water water everywhere, lots of people dying, several times where it looks hopeful that they might survive, and a sad ending where the guy dies and the girl lives on. And to be honest, when I watched Titanic, I actually fastforwarded through most of the last hour -- I just didn't feel like watching it.

Well, the story of Lou Gehrig is similar, especially as told in this book. The amount of detail that Jonathan Eig has extracted from history is impeccable, painting Gehrig into a crisper image than has ever been done before. But everyone knows what happened to Lou Gehrig -- and sure enough, about two thirds of the way through the book, you hit the sentence "Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis struck Lou Gehrig in 1938." There's the iceberg. And then you know you're in for another three years of his life, watching him waste away, several times getting false hope from doctors with experimental cures, and eventually a sad ending where the guy dies and the girl lives on. And to be honest, I started reading a little bit quicker when I hit the iceberg in this too -- the amount of medical detail explained at times was just a little too intense to bear.

Despite the fact that the story of Lou Gehrig is a sad one, and that Lou Gehrig himself was said to be a boring guy in general, this book has a lot of humor injected into it, to make sure the tone is never too serious when it doesn't need to be. To some extent, there's just a lot of things that are somewhat ridiculous about that time period when viewed from the present. Alternately, Gehrig's dryness itself also manifests in wit. In addition, Lou played the straight man to the craziness of Babe Ruth for a while:
   When asked at a press conference how he planned to spend the winter, Ruth said, "I ain't doin' a thing, except you know what!"
   The reporters knew what, but they couldn't print it.
   Gehrig said, "I plan to play a lot of basketball."

Another strength of this book is the amount of detail paid to the supporting characters in the story. Eleanor Gehrig has written her own books, of course, and everyone knows about Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, but many of the other Bronx Bombers that played along Gehrig have mostly faded away into history. In this book, though, the people close to him live on in vivid detail, such as his best friend on the team, Bill Dickey:
   William Malcolm Dickey was four years younger than Gehrig. Born in Louisiana and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, he was one of seven children. He was a quietly elegant man, long-legged and strong. Yet his face was that of a boy, with ears that stuck out like handles on a jug, and a sweet, wide grin. He looked like a lazy old horse when he walked, as if each section of each limb required a separate call to action. For such a young and lean athlete, though, he was a terribly slow runner. Everything about him seemed to operate in slow motion, most of all his speech. He didn't talk much, but when he did, his smooth Southern drawl made even the most urgent plea sound calm.
   "I signaled for a fast ball and you threw me a curve," Dickey complained once to the pitcher Lefty Gomez, in his most furious tone.
   "How are your bird dogs?" Gomez replied.
   It was nearly impossible to feel threatened by Dickey. Even Gehrig approached without fear.

The visual descriptions of people and places stand on their own, but Eig even manages to capture sensory images of history in sound as well, both in the sounds of baseball and in the sounds of people. One standout example of this is in the growth of radio, which paralleled Gehrig's career. (It seems that Gehrig would have most likely been a case of "Video killed the radio star", had he played a decade or two later.) It had somehow never occurred to me that radio broadcasts of baseball games were not always as we think of them now, but were originally essentially oral box scores, with sparse announcement of plays and vast stretches of silence in between. It was during Gehrig's first year as a player that one man changed all that:
   The sportswriters used radio the same way they used their pencils and scorecards, to record all the necessary details and none of the atmosphere. They saved their creative flourishes for their newspaper readers.
   But in 1923, a former concert singer named Graham McNamee was hired to sit beside the sportswriters and liven up their broadcasts. McNamee had a deep, rich voice, and he loved to ramble. He didn't know much about baseball, but he had a terrific eye for detail, and he described what he saw in marvelous terms. When frustrated fans put their fists through their straw hats, when Gloria Swanson arrived at her seat wrapped in ermine, when John McGraw flashed all but invisible signals to his players, McNamee called it as he saw it. He was radio's first color commentator. "The crowd is ready, yowling, and howling," he said in one typically excited moment. "I never heard such a crowd in my life... Strike one!"
   McNamee gave baseball a common language. He took the game out of the ballpark and into homes and made it a part of the sound of American life, so much so that a New Yorker could walk down the street without missing a pitch as McNamee's voice boomed from window after window. In the process, he became a celebrity -- bigger perhaps than all but Ruth. When he dropped a Thermos full of coffee and stained his suit while on the air, the incident made news the next day. Naturally, the sportswriters were jealous, and they tried, in vain, to point out that the broadcaster often seemed to mistake right-handed hitters for left-handed hitters, couldn't keep track of which man was at bat, and put runners on the bases when there were none. "I don't know which game to write about," Ring Lardner wote after one World Series game, "the one I saw today or the one I heard Graham McNamee announce as I sat next to him at the Polo Grounds."

As you can see by these excerpts, the prose in this book is absolutely fantastic. Even the times of Gehrig's life that could become dull if presented in black-and-white, such as his yearly statistics, salary negotiations, and especially, details about some games and slumps and such -- much like McNamee's broadcasts, these are given color and detail that was not touched upon before. There's always a quote or an anecdote to bring to life anything from Lou's fishing expeditions to his playing stickball with kids in the neighborhood after he'd come home from the ballpark.

And of course, Eig managed to get copies of all of Gehrig's correspondence with the Mayo Clinic, which sheds a lot of light on exactly what his condition was like in various stages of ALS, and what treatments he tried, and who he tried them from. There were details of the house he and Eleanor lived in during the last years of his life, down to the number of steps it took to get to the front porch, to the first floor, and so on (it doesn't seem like much until you remember that Gehrig was basically losing the ability to walk). Some stories have also been set straight from the versions portrayed in The Pride of the Yankees, or in Eleanor's tales. The saddest part is probably how long it seems he held out hope that he would be cured.

Anyway, this book is a solid piece of work and well worth reading. It's even reasonable as a bus book, though I recommend reading the last chapter or two at home if you're prone to crying when the profound sadness of the entire situation really hits you.

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