Saturday, April 23, 2011

Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man

Who would think that reading a biography about the legendary Lou Gehrig’s life could move you to tears?  Well, author David Adler and illustrator Terry Widener were able to do just that.  This is a heartfelt tribute to one of the greatest sports figures in our history. 
The opening was interesting as it describes the year 1903.  It was a year with great beginnings with Ford’s first automobile and the Wright Brothers first successful flight in an airplane.  It was also the year Henry Louis Gehrig was born.  Lou’s family lived in Yorkville, New York after his family emigrated from Germany.  We learn of his love for sports at an early age.  His mother had great hopes and dreams for Lou to attend college and become an accountant or engineer.  He did make it to Columbia University, but he never finished college because he signed on to the Yankees baseball team.  Lou’s mother, Christina, was furious because she thought he was ruining his life.  Adler does a remarkable job of describing Lou’s character as a child to an adult.  “The boy who never missed a day of grade school became a man who never missed a game.” 
In 1938, Lou was not able to hit a ball anymore and there didn’t appear to be any reason.  Again, his character traits shine through as he took extra batting practice.  He tried to change his stance and watched his diet.  But the over time he progressively became worse.  He even fell down while he was getting dressed in the clubhouse.  Clearly something is wrong with him, but the Yankee manager Joe McCarthy refused to take Lou out of the game.  This just shows the tremendous respect McCarthy has for Gehri.  “On May 2, 1939, he told Joe McCarthy, “I’m benching myself…for the good of the team.”
Lou was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a deadly disease that affects the nervous system.  Lou was loved by his team and fans and they dedicated July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium.  Lou addresses the fans in appreciation of this day.  “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got.  Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” 
Terry Widener’s illustrations are deep and rich as he used Golden acrylics on Strathmore Bristol board.  The illustrations depict life of the 30’s from the clothes, the strap around the school books, the milk bottles on the steps, all the way to the uniform that changed over time.  I thought it was interesting that the eyes all appeared to be closed on each person.  Perhaps this was done to signify that he is a man in the past.  The most profound illustration for me was when Widener portrays Gehrig shedding a tear as he addresses his fans.  Widener depicts Gehrig in a spread that takes up about three –fourths of the page.  Gehrig is up close and center with a tear falling and the fans in the stadium appear so far away.   It is this illustration that moved me to tears as I was reading this book.  I could feel the sadness he had as he was no longer able to play the game that he so passionately loved, yet I knew he was sincere with being thankful for the opportunities he has had as he says, “I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”  The darker colors add to the tone of this moment.  There are vertical and horizontal lines that suggest tranquility.
Just before the story ends there is a full bleed double page spread that depicts Yankee Stadium with people walking away from the stadium with black umbrellas, as the rain is falling down.  This illustration sets the tone for the last page as we learn that on Monday, June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig died.  On June 4th the Yankee game was canceled because of the rain.  This was also the day of Lou Gehrig’s funeral.  The minister at the funeral said that there wouldn’t be any speeches.  “We need none, because you all knew him.”  After reading this book, I felt like I knew him as well.  A dedicated man with tremendous dignity and pride.
One might think that children today may not be interested in this book or relate to it because Gehrig is from the 1930's. I am sure many Yankee fans may own a copy of this book for their children.  Although, I think Red Sox or White Sox or any other family should own a copy as well.   Children today can learn a lot from his character.  They can also relate to the situation in which he had to choose college or professional baseball.  Many children today want to play professional ball as well and I am sure many of their parents are telling them to get an education first.  Even back in the 1930’s Gehrig’s mother wanted him to finish college too. 
This story also brings up immigration as well.  Some people are open to the diversity in our country while others are not.  I think it is important to reflect and remember what our country was founded on and to remember some of the legends who came from immigrants from other countries.
Dedicated.  Courageous.  Appreciative.  Lou Gehrig!

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