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Dan Shaughnessy

Charity begins at home plate

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / July 2, 2009
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Going to Fenway Park for Red Sox-Mariners Saturday? Bring a box of tissue. Bring your checkbook, too. Boston’s ancient baseball theater will be one of 15 major league parks honoring the 70th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech (“I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth’’) and raising funds to support ALS research. It’s called “4ALS Awareness’’

Nice going, MLB. In 1939, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis took Gehrig off the field after 2,130 consecutive games and now baseball is joining the fight against the deadly disease.

“We’re involved with a whole series of charities,’’ explained commissioner Bud Selig. “We get asked a lot. But I’ve had inquiries about ALS from a fair number of people over the years, because of the Lou Gehrig connection. I said to myself, ‘This disease is so horrible and it affects so many people and it’s as dreaded today as it was in 1939.’ This is our chance to increase awareness, raise some money, and reach out to all the people affected and show people we do care.

“I can’t give any more reason than that. That’s how it happened. I wish my other decisions were as easy as this one.’’

Throughout baseball Saturday, players will wear 4ALS patches. First bases (Gehrig’s position) will be auctioned, and during the seventh-inning stretch there will be a reading of Gehrig’s famous speech, delivered to 61,808 fans at Yankee Stadium July 4, 1939.

“You know how I feel about the tradition of our sport,’’ said Selig. “Ask me how many times I’ve watched Gary Cooper in ‘The Pride of the Yankees.’ At least 100 times. He was such a wonderful human being. To be struck down the way he was and gone in two short years - he was an indestructible player.’’

How good was Gehrig? You often read and hear about the 1927 Yankees. Buffered by performance-enhancing hot dogs, Babe Ruth smashed a record 60 home runs that season. But did you know that Gehrig hit .373 with 47 homers and 175 RBIs?

Never missing a game, the Iron Horse kept going strong into the late 1930s. He felt weak at the end of the 1938 campaign and took a $3,000 pay cut for the following season.

When he arrived at spring training in 1939, Gehrig’s strength was gone. One day he swung and missed on 19 consecutive batting practice pitches. Two weeks into the season, Gehrig came out of the lineup. He tried playing again in June but fell over catching a line drive in an exhibition game in Kansas City. He went to see Dr. Charles Mayo in Rochester, Minn., the next day and a week later was informed he had ALS.

French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot first identified the disease in 1874. Amyotrophic is the Greek word for “no muscle management.’’ Lateral represents the spinal area damaged by the disease, and sclerosis is defined as a thickening or hardening of a bodily part. In the wake of Gehrig’s diagnosis, ALS came to be known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Gehrig was 36 when he told the crowd, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’’ He died June 2, 1941, and now baseball honors his legacy by officially joining the battle against ALS.

“The 4ALS Awareness campaign is a long overdue collaboration between major and minor league baseball and the organizations that are on the front lines in the fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease,’’ said Debra Sharpe, president of the ALS Association’s Massachusetts chapter.

“This has an opportunity to be the largest day of awareness and fund-raising ever,’’ said Rob Goldstein, communications director of Cambridge-based ALS Therapy Development Institute, the world’s largest independent research center solely focused on defeating ALS.

Red Sox fan Ken Patterson will be at Fenway Saturday with his wife and three children. The 40-year-old Patterson lives in Titusville, Fla., and last year powered his wheelchair from Orlando to Washington, D.C. (21 days) to raise awareness for ALS. He has been living with the disease since 2006.

“I am honored to be representing ALS patients everywhere on this historic day, when MLB pays tribute to a legend, and although he was a Yankee, we can look past the jersey to see the person he was, the Iron Man,’’ said Patterson. “The ‘never give up’ attitude is something that every person with ALS has to embody.’’

Old friend Curt Schilling has been ahead of the curve on ALS research. In addition to time and money, the former Sox pitching star has lent his considerable fame to the cause for two decades. Back in 2004, Schilling printed "K ALS" on the shoe that encased his famous bloody sock. Curt and Shonda Schilling named their firstborn “Gehrig.’’

“On July 4th of this year, more people will receive an introduction to ALS, what it is, what it does, and what it means, than on any day in the history of mankind,’’ blogged Schill.

My brother-in-law, Don Marquis, will watch the Fenway proceedings from his home in Nashua, N.H. A liberal Democrat and a social studies teacher at Nashua High for 32 years, Marquis was diagnosed with ALS in 2007. He’s not much of a baseball fan, but he knows he’s getting great care when he visits the Curt and Shonda Schilling ALS Clinic at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington.

What does Marquis know about Curt Schilling?

“Baseball player. Benefactor for ALS. Very conservative. We could have a lively debate.’’

There is no debate about ALS. The disease plays no favorites, has no party affiliation, and never lets go of its victims.

ALS took Lou Gehrig.

Now baseball is fighting back.

Go to MLB.com/4ALS to donate and/or learn more about this weekend’s MLB ALS activities.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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