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paroleboard.jpg
Gehrig is sworn in as a parole commissioner.

Saying good-bye to the Yankees was not the end of the line

He was diagnosed with ALS by the Mayo Clinic in mid-June 1939. In less than a month he retired from baseball. The hoopla was finished. What now?

For starters, Gehrig and his wife, Eleanor, moved into a cozy two-story on Delafield Avenue in Riverdale, NY (a division of Bronx). Even though he, the sole bread winner, was out of his bright-spotlight job, he was promised by Yankee mogul Ed Barrow that he would never have to do without. Barrow said that since Gehrig retired voluntarily (well, technically Gehrig did step out on his own volition, despite not having much of a choice), Gehrig had the right to remain on the Yankee payroll until the close of the season. This provision, applicable to most other players, effected that players remained the property of the club with whom they last played.

But Gehrig didn't need a bribe to remain loyal to the Yanks. Though his ALS quickly made it nearly impossible for him to climb stairs, Gehrig would frequent the Stadium for home games during his early retirement. When the Yankees headed south for Spring Training, Gehrig was asked how he felt about his first Training on the other side. "Sure I'd like to be going south with the Yankees," he said. "And so, I guess, would about a million other fellows. But I'm luckier than they are - because Ive been south with the Yankees." He insisted that life on the other side wasn't all that bad. "Youd be surprised," he said, "how different a slant you get on a ballgame when you see it from the bench - I mean, after you have been playing for years. For the first time, I am looking at a complete game. For years I was so busy trying to take care of my own position that I didn't have time to take in a view of the whole game."

By the end of the '39 season, Yankee owner Ed Barrow had made it clear what he thought of Gehrig's revised relationship with the Yankees.  He told Eleanor that "it was about time for him to get himself another job."  Eleanor was already baring the burden of knowing her husband's full prognosis (she claims he never knew he was dying), so she'd be damned if she kept Barrow's words to herself.  Though Gehrig was upset that his boss, for whom he had had enormous respect, would say such words, his anger was nothing compared to Eleanor's bitterness.  She was hoping that Gehrig would be asked to remain with the organization in some capacity or other.  When he was diagnosed, the Mayo Clinic suggested that Gehrig would fit well in an office or writing position with the Yankees, and this was probably what Eleanor hoped Barrow would do to keep the die-hard-Yankee Gehrig (he had a mutt named Yankee for goodness sake!) with the team.

No matter, Gehrig didn't necessarily need the green backs from Barrow. In 1940, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia offered Gehrig a 10-year appointment to be one of the city's three city commissioners of parole, and Gehrig latched on to the job offer.

It sounds heartwarming enough, but Eleanor was holding back on both Gehrig and LaGuardia about Gehrig's ALS. The only stipulation Eleanor laid down on LaGuardia's offer was that he ask no questions when she told him it was time for Gehrig to leave. She told him that she would notify him as soon as she thought Gehrig's mental capacity was shot. (Eleanor was the only one of the three that knew the full prognosis of ALS - expeditious decline in physical capabilities, but no affect on brain power, all leading to certain death within 2.5 years).

As a parole commissioner, Gehrig worked with many underprivileged, poor, and struggling people of almost every age, race, and religion. It was ironic that many of the people he came in contact with claimed that they simply "got a bad break." Hmmmm, sounds familiar. But Gehrig would never sneer or preach about what "a bad break" truly was. LaGuardia had warned Gehrig not to let any offender hit his emotional weaknesses. Truth, it was the other way around in the end; Gehrig ended up inadvertently finding their weaknesses.

LaGuardia was extremely pleased with Gehrig's performance on the parole board. Not a far cry from the pleasure he used to get out of Gehrig's on-field performance. Unfortunately for all, Gehrig's tenure on the Board was cut short when his legs were very evidently giving out on him, which would force him to become a shut-in within a matter of weeks. The time came and Eleanor called LaGuardia to tell him that she was pulling Gehrig. At that time, LaGuardia had become so close to the Gehrigs that Eleanor revealed the full prognosis. LaGuardia was "horrified," as anyone would be.

Gehrig would live all of 1940 and half of 1941 almost exclusively in his home, confined to bed in the latter months. In all, he struggled with ALS for 23 months after diagnosis. The whole time he did not know the full prognosis, according to his wife. He had many a visitor during the first part of his home confinement. The guests included LaGuardia, Barrow and family, best friend Bill Dickey, Mom, Pop, Eleanor's family, Broadway star Tallulah Bankhead along with her fellow actors and singers, songwriter Fred Fisher, and almost all of the people he had affected in some manner along the way.

You might also be interested in Gehrig vs. Rocky - a story of how Gehrig influenced a troubled boy to turn to boxing.

Written by S. Kaden, 2002