Character is assayed by two standards: (1) choices we make when all is well, (2) choices we make when all goes wrong.
In July of this year, the Ice Bucket Challenge–dumping a bucket of ice on someone’s head–went viral in the social media. Pete Frates from Boston and his friend Pat Quinn, both diagnosed with ALS created the challenge to raise awareness of the disease and money for research.
The rare, incurable disorder affects nerve cells of the brain and that control voluntary muscle activity. Muscles wither, followed by paralysis and death, usually within two to five years.
ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. His story is one of a man whose character measured greatness on both standards.
Born to German immigrants in New York, Henry Louis Gehrig was the only one of four children to survive infancy. His father struggled with alcohol, often losing his a job. Determined that her son would have a better life, Lou’s mother worked tirelessly cleaning houses and cooking meals for the wealthy. She pressed him to get a good education and encouraged his athletic pursuits.
At Columbia University, Lou studied engineering and excelled in football and baseball. A star pitcher on the baseball team, he once struck out 17 batters in a single game.
Lou’s prowess with the bat, however, impressed New York Yankee scouts. In 1923, the year Yankee stadium first opened, Lou signed with the team. Included in the deal was a $1,500 signing bonus with which he purchased a house for his parents. With his salary, Lou helped lift them out of poverty and misery.
The unassuming Gehrig quietly made his mark as a professional. Overshadowed by colorful, in-the-spotlight teammates like Babe Ruth, Lou earned respect by his hard-work and ability to play through incredible pain. Over 13 consecutive seasons he scored and batted in 100 runs or more. His records include home runs in a single game and RBIs in a season. In 1934, Lou won baseball’s Triple Crown by leading the league in home runs (49), batting average (.363) and RBIs (165).
In 1939, after 16 years and a record 2,130 consecutive games, ‘The Iron Horse’, retired. ALS caught up with him. On July 4th, a sell-out crowd gathered at Yankee Stadium to honor their quiet hero. Lou’s short farewell speech reflects the measure of his character.
“For the past two weeks you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Lou paid tribute to his parents, wife and teammates and then closed with, “I might have been given a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”
Lou Gehrig left baseball but continued serving his community until the dread ALS took his life two years later. Neither success nor calamity diminished the measure of his character.