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They called him the "iron horse" and the "pride of the Yankees." But when baseball great Lou Gehrig came to Mayo Clinic in June 1939, his name became associated with an illness called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Today, ALS is often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.
The diagnosis that Gehrig received at Mayo Clinic, where he marked his 36th birthday, also marked the end of his career. Among many highlights, Gehrig played 2,130 consecutive games (a record that stood until 1995), was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in its charter year, and was the first athlete to have his number (4) officially retired.
Now Gehrig's story — along with an iconic artifact — is highlighted in a new exhibit at Heritage Hall on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. Heritage Hall is a museum open to the public located on the street level of the Mayo Building in the Mathews Grand Lobby. It includes photos, graphics, films and artifacts showcasing Mayo Clinic's history, current activities and plans for the future.
Although he was a famous athlete, Gehrig developed a bond with Mayo Clinic that is similar to the experience of many people who turn to Mayo when they encounter troubling symptoms. In his biography, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, Jonathan Eig wrote:
Away from the big-city reporters and expectant teammates, away from his anxious wife and parents, he unwound completely. But it wasn't just the soft hum of small-town life that Gehrig found so pleasing. After weeks and months of uncertainty, after a period in which self-doubt had corroded his spirit like acid chewing through steel, he was at last getting answers. They were not the answers he wanted. But they were answers.
During his weeklong evaluation under the direction of Paul O'Leary, M.D., and colleagues, Gehrig found ways to reach out. He gave informal baseball lessons and spent time with the teenage boys who played on the local American Legion team. One of them, Bob Tierney, became a special friend.
Tierney wanted to play second base, but he said, "I was gimpy. I had a bum leg — always have had." Gehrig suggested he try pitching instead, Tierney recalled. "He said, 'Come on. Try it.' And we worked on it, and I started pitching. And I pitched minor leagues, and I amateured for 22 years."
Along with affirmation and advice, Lou Gehrig gave something else of value: He signed Tierney's lucky ball.
"He was the nicest guy I've ever run into," Tierney said. "He'd stop and talk to every kid, especially baseball-playing age. He was real cordial. He would talk to you about anything you'd bring up. He was one of the gang."
The last time they met was shortly before Gehrig left Rochester. They shook hands and Tierney recalled: "He was trying to leave the idea that he was going to go back and play again, but I think in his own heart he knew he wasn't going to play."
On July 4, 1939, shortly after being discharged from Mayo Clinic, Gehrig gave his classic speech at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
"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 the earth."
It was a poignant moment when Tierney watched Gehrig's speech in a newsreel at the Chateau Theater in Rochester. Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.
Tierney and his buddies played with the autographed ball for a while, but he soon realized its value. Tierney kept the ball for three-quarters of a century. He placed the ball into a collector's case and, later, a bank vault.
Then in his 90s, Tierney made the decision to sell the ball. Rochester business executive Andy Chafoulias learned of the upcoming sale. He knew Tierney's son from their high school days in Rochester. Shortly before Bob Tierney's death, Chafoulias bought the ball. He and his daughter donated it to Mayo Clinic, where it is now displayed in an exhibit in Heritage Hall.
"It's an honor to have this baseball in its historic home, especially as Mayo makes discoveries in ALS and other illnesses, which bring hope to people around the world," Chafoulias says.
The triple play of generosity is now complete: Gehrig, despite his illness, giving encouragement to a young fan; Bob Tierney, steward of the artifact for 75 years, selling it to a Rochester family rather than placing it on the open market; and the Chafoulias family donating the ball as an inspiration for the patients and staff of Mayo Clinic.