SSTN Interviews Author Dan Joseph
SSTN: Today we are here with Dan Joseph, the author of Last Ride of the Iron Horse: How Lou Gehrig Fought ALS to Play One Final Championship Season. The book was published by Sunbury Press last year and has received many five-star reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and websites that focus on baseball. It was also the basis for a medical paper recently published in the RRNMF Neuromuscular Journal.
Dan, it is great to have this discussion with you. Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News.
Glad to be here, Paul.
Please begin by telling us a little about your book on Lou Gehrig and where it can be purchased.
The book, “Last Ride of the Iron Horse,” tells the story of Gehrig’s last full year in the Yankee lineup, 1938, as he dealt with the early effects of ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He struggled that season with slumps and a loss of power after years of being the heart of the Yankee offense. The fans were booing and sportswriters called for him to be benched. And then, in August, Lou started pounding home runs like his old self. This is speculation, but he may have enjoyed a rare case of temporary ALS reversal.
Here at SSTN, we are big fans of Lou Gehrig. He is an icon about whom much has been written about. For your book, you chose a sad chapter in his life – his final season and championship. Please tell us how this idea developed.
There have been a lot of books about Gehrig, at least a dozen, and several of them are very good. But there was never one focused on this particular year. I think it’s astounding that despite the early effects of a crippling disease, one that would kill him within three years, Gehrig was able to play in every game, place in the American League’s top ten for homers, on-base percentage and RBI, and help the Yankees win their third straight World Series. To quote myself from the book: “How in God’s name did he do that?” It’s got to be one of the most incredible feats in baseball history.
What aspect of Lou Gehrig’s life, or his character, drew you most to him?
Gehrig is a very interesting man in many ways, but for this book I was most interested in his courage and fortitude. It’s hard enough to play more than two thousand consecutive games with a completely healthy body. Now imagine trying to keep the streak going as ALS starts to sap your strength and
coordination. Actually, I can’t really imagine how he did it in ‘38. He said that as early as March, he could feel the power missing from his swing. Obviously, he came around and was able to hit 29 homers and play the full season. But it took a lot of adjustments and willpower. And the sportswriters were saying all along that he looked slow and it was time to end the streak. The criticism hurt him, and I found evidence that it really shook his confidence. Somehow he persevered and for a season, was able to overcome this obstacle that had materialized out of nowhere.
I often teach the students about Lou Gehrig’s speech on Lou Gehrig Day. I state how he was dying and yet he said he considered himself “The luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Amazing. What does that speech mean to you?
It’s one of the finest examples of dignity and courage you’ll ever see. I love how he didn’t wallow in the details of the tragedy that had befallen him; he focused on the things that he was thankful for. Incidentally, I haven’t given up hope that someday, a recording of the entire speech will be found, maybe in a forgotten film canister or radio transcription disc. It was such a monumental speech and there were so many cameras and microphones. Why wouldn’t somebody record it and keep it?
Please share with us one little known fact about Lou Gehrig that you uncovered in your research.
My favorite was learning about Lou’s civic activism after the ‘38 season. He spoke at a forum on the nation’s problems and was on the same panel as Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia, among others. He spoke at a fundraiser for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and said he was glad to live in a country where he didn’t have to wear the swastika. And then he took part in a March of Dimes campaign to raise money for the fight against polio. I can’t help but think he knew something was happening to his body, and that his career might be ending soon, and he’d better find something to do besides baseball.
Did you have to edit out any stories about Lou Gehrig that you wish you had been able to keep in the book?
Nothing major, but there is one tidbit I wish I had left in. I think everyone knows that July 4, 1939 was Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium. One year later, July 4, 1940, Lou returned to the same spot in a very different way – he flew over the stadium in a Goodyear blimp. A newspaper pal of his, Fred Fletcher, arranged the flight. The Yankees weren’t there that day – they were in Boston, sweeping a doubleheader – but Fletcher said he saw a wistful look in Gehrig’s eyes as he looked down at the ballpark.
When we write and research, we learn. What was the biggest lesson you learned in writing this book?
Dig and dig and dig and dig until you’ve hit bedrock and can’t dig anymore. There were several times I thought I had all the information I was going to get and then I’d hit a rich new vein. Finding Wally Schang’s detailed, behind-the-scenes perspective on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day was one of those moments.
Do you have other works in process? Please tell us about them.
I’m working on a book about Pete Reiser, the Brooklyn Dodger outfielder of the 1940s who ruined his career by running into outfield walls. He should have been a superstar on the level of Joe DiMaggio or Stan Musial. In fact, Pee Wee Reese said he thought Reiser was better than Musial. But Reiser played with this laser-like focus and he couldn’t seem to pull back to avoid catastrophe. He fascinates me. There are also a lot of legends about him, and I’m trying to get to the bottom of which ones are true and which one’s aren’t.
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
Someday there will have to be books about Aaron Judge, Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, and the Houston Astros of the last five years. Looking forward to all of those.
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
For a couple of years when I was a kid, Dave Parker. Big guy who could hit, had a great arm. When he broke his jaw, he came back two weeks later with a plastic faceguard. Real tough competitor. But over a period of three or four years, he got heavier and slower and disgruntled and suffered a bunch of injuries and lost that special something.
Later, the young Barry Bonds. (I’m not counting the bulked up Bonds.) Aaron Judge might make the grade if he could stay healthy.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
The Pirates. I grew up in Pittsburgh and remember the ‘79 season vividly.
Who was your favorite player?
Parker. He broke my little boy heart.
What is your most prized collectible?
Don’t really have one, but I have a pretty good baseball card collection.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
The Beatles. Elvis a very close second.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Oreos. I can’t help it.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
I can’t wait for the day when the virus is beaten and we can all go back to the ballpark. In the meantime, thank you to everyone who has read “Last Ride” and thank you double for all the nice comments. An audio version of the book should be out sometime around the New Year. I hope you’ll like the Reiser book when I get it done.
Thank you Dan for taking this time with us today. I wish you great success always. Please stop by again and let us know when the Pete Reiser book is completed.