1939: Lou Gehrig Comes to Mayo Clinic #ThrowbackThursday

The new Lou Gehrig exhibit in Heritage Hall in Rochester, Minnesota.

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 (ALS). Today, ALS is known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Gehrig’s story—along with an iconic artifact—is highlighted in a new exhibit at Heritage Hall on the Rochester campus in Minnesota.

The diagnosis that Gehrig received at Mayo Clinic, where he marked his 36th birthday, ended 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.

Although he was a famous athlete, Gehrig developed a bond with Mayo Clinic that is similar to the experience of many patients who turn to Mayo when they encounter troubling symptoms. In Gehrig's biography, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, author 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. Bob Tierney wanted to play second base, but he said, “I was gimpy. I had a bum leg—always have had.” Gehrig suggested that he try pitching, Bob 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,” Bob Tierney said.

Bob Tierney (in box) listened to Lou Gehrig's advice to give up second base for pitching.

Along with affirmation and advice, Lou Gehrig gave something else of value: He signed Bob’s lucky ball. “He was the nicest guy I’ve ever run into,” Bob 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 Bob 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 Bob Tierney watched Gehrig’s speech in a newsreel at the Chateau Theater in Rochester. Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.

Bob Tierney and his buddies played with the autographed ball for a while, but he soon realized its value. Bob Tierney kept the ball for three-quarters of a century. (He also acquired the autograph of another famous name in baseball—albeit not the gentleman player of Gehrig’s caliber: Leo “the Lip” Durocher.) He placed the ball into a collector’s case and, later, a bank vault.

Bob Tierney and his baseball, autographed by Lou Gehrig.

Then in his 90s, Bob Tierney made the decision to sell the ball. Rochester business executive Andy Chafoulias learned of the upcoming sale. He knew Bob Tierney’s son, filmmaker Marty Tierney, from their high school days in Rochester. Shortly before Bob Tierney's death, Chafoulias bought the ball. He and his daughter, Taylor Chafoulias, donated it to Mayo Clinic, where it is now displayed in an exhibit in Heritage Hall. Andy Chafoulias explains: “Mayo Clinic and the city of Rochester have a special place in my family story. 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.”

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 Andy and Taylor Chafoulias donating the ball as an inspiration for the patients and staff of Mayo Clinic.

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Alyssa Frank

Alyssa Frank is a Marketing Associate at Mayo Medical Laboratories. She supports marketing strategies for product management and specialty testing. Alyssa has worked at Mayo Clinic since 2015.