By Barry Janoff
April 28, 2014: One of the most famous events in sports history took place in Yankee Stadium but did not occur during the course of a baseball game.
On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig, suffering from the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), stood at home plate between games of a doubleheader with the then Washington Senators in front of family, current and former teammates and more than 61,800 fans and gave a speech in which he called himself "the luckiest man on the face of this earth."
The New York Yankees' first baseman died less than two years later, at the age of 37, from what has since to become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Since Gehrig's speech in 1939, 375,000 Americans have been diagnosed with the disease, according to the ALS Association, based in Washington, DC and with a national network of 38 chapters.
It is estimated that 30,000 people in the U.S. have ALS at any given time, with approximately 5,600 new cases diagnosed annually. More than 5,000 people die from the disease each year.
To mark the 75th anniversary of Gehrig's iconic speech, which gave a face and a name to the disease, the ALS Association will launch a multi-platform campaign beginning in May to coincide with ALS Awareness Month. The PSA-anchored effort includes TV, print, Internet, social media and other activations aimed to raise awareness of and generation donations for ALS.
The ALS Association is overseeing its Gehrig campaign with the assistance of the Rip Van Winkle Foundation (d/b/a The Lou Gehrig Society), which owns the property rights to the image, name and voice of Lou Gehrig and is represented by CMG Worldwide.
“While Gehrig was the first face of ALS, this ALS Awareness Month we want to not only honor his legacy but also recognize the thousands of individuals [who] are currently impacted by the disease," Jane Gilbert, president and CEO for the ALS Association, said in a statement. "Raising awareness is a crucial step in generating support for our efforts to find treatments and a cure for today’s faces of ALS."
The ALS Association and its chapters work directly with people "living with the disease, their families and caregivers to help improve an individual’s quality of life and manage the impact of the disease." ALS Association is currently supporting 98 active research projects but said it is able to fund "only one out of every three research proposals " it receives.
According to Gilbert, “Sadly, the outcome of a diagnosis of ALS today isn’t much different than it was in Gehrig’s time. Seventy-five years later, there is still no cure, and only one drug (Riluzole, an anti-glutamate agent) approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration modestly extends survival by two or three months.”
By unfortunate coincidence, news of the Gehrig campaign came at the same time that biopharmaceutical company Cytokinetics Inc. said that an experimental drug called tirasemtiv "did not achieve its primary efficacy endpoint" among patients being treated in a trial test. According to the South San Francisco-based firm, "The average life expectancy of an ALS patient is approximately three to five years after diagnosis and only 10% of patients survive for more than 10 years."
Among the efforts for the ALS Association campaign will be support from A&E Networks, which is a joint venture between the Hearst Corp. and Disney Co.'s Disney-ABC Television Group.
A&E Network's History channel is producing a 60-second PSA about Gehrig that will air across its sister networks (including A&E, Lifetime and Biography) and will be distributed through its cable providers (including DirecTV, Dish, Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse).
Several versions of an ALS Association PSA featuring images of Gehrig have been created for print and Web, including ads for social media destinations including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
The PSA's offer such text as "Someday we'll be able to name a cure after Lou Gehrig instead of a disease," "Seventy-five years later, we'd like to make a farewell speech to Lou Gehrig's Disease" and "The 75th Anniversary of no cure for Lou Gehrig's Disease."
Separately, the Yankees have scheduled a Lou Gehrig Bobblehead Day for July 2, presented by AT&T, with the first 18,000 fans in Yankee Stadium receiving the mini-statue. It shows Gehrig standing on the field in front of a microphone to simulate the event in 1939.
On July 4, when the Yankees are in Minnesota, the Twins have also scheduled a Lou Gehrig Bobblehead day to commemorate the anniversary of his speech.
In 2009, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the speech, MLB joined with several major organizations working to find a cure for the illness for a campaign, "4ALS Awareness," which culminated that year with Gehrig's entire speed being read at all MLB games on July 4 during the seventh-inning stretch.
The 4ALS Awareness organizations include ALS Therapy Development Institute, MDA, the ALS Society of Ontario, the ALS Society of Canada and Project ALS, as well as the ALS Association.
MLB is again planning an event across all teams on July 4 to honor the 75th anniversary of the speech.
Among other events this year, the ALS Association is overseeing a National ALS Advocacy Day conference and exhibition May 7-9, Washington DC (details here); and the New York Mets and Project ALS are holding "A Night to Believe" on May 9 in Citi Field (details here).
Since 1955, the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, sponsored by the Phi Delta Theta International Fraternity, is presented annually to an MLB player in recognition of their charitable and philanthropic work.
Pride Mobility/Quantum Rehab will sponsor the ASL association's e-campaign in May and "has donated ten lift chairs to be given to ALS Association chapters to give to people impacted by ALS to improve quality of life."
“The severity of ALS, the absence of effective therapy, and the importance of finding treatments for all neurodegenerative diseases, have combined to make ALS an attractive target for new approaches to drug discovery and development,” Lucie Bruijn, Ph.D., MBA, chief scientist for The ALS Association, said in a statement.
Gehrig, a native of of New York, played for the Yankees from 1923-1939, was a member of six World Series championship teams, won the AL MVP twice and the Triple Crown once. His 2,130 consecutive-game playing streak was a MLB mark until it was surpassed by Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995 (who went on to play in 2,632 consecutive games).
Gehrig was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. He was portrayed by Gary Cooper in the 1942 movie, The Pride of the Yankees.
According to the ALS Association, "ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Eventually, people with ALS lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement, which often leads to total paralysis and death within two to five years of diagnosis. For unknown reasons, veterans are approximately twice as likely to develop ALS as the general population."
The ALS Association also said that U.S. veterans have almost 60% more risk of contracting ALS than civilians, especially those who serve overseas, information based on research at Harvard University that dates back to 1910.
The U.S. Department of Defense Department invests $7.5 million annually to search for causes and treatments, according to the Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute in Los Angeles. Cedars-Sinai earlier this month said it received a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Defense "to conduct animal studies that, if successful, could provide the basis for a clinical trial of a gene therapy product for patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease."
Lou Gehrig's Speech From July 4, 1939:
"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day?
"Sure I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?
"Sure I'm lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body — it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that's the finest I know.
"So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."
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