BOSTON — If you’re in this journalism business long enough, you are privileged, every once in a while, to play a small part in somebody else’s far more meaningful drama.
About a year ago, I had a walk-on part in Michael Goldsmith’s life. A mutual friend had asked me if I might use my connections at Newsweek, where I worked for almost 30 years, so that Michael could share his story via the magazine’s popular “My Turn” column.
As a result, last November it became his turn.
Goldsmith, a law professor at Brigham Young University, wrote about the “death sentence” he had received two years earlier at age 55, a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known in this country as Lou Gehrig’s disease. And he told how in his sorrow, he had reconnected with baseball, the game, indeed the love affair of his youth.
Baseball — he even managed to attend a fantasy baseball camp — turned out to provide considerable comfort as he faced the greatest and final challenge of his life. But the sentimental did not completely override the logic of a legalistic mind. And so an obvious question occurred to him.
Why hadn’t the game with which ALS is uniquely linked — a disease which provided, arguably, the most famous non-game moment in baseball history, Lou Gehrig’s farewell at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 — done more to lead the fight against ALS?
ALS, a progressively paralyzing neuromuscular disorder, desperately needed a champion. It afflicts relatively few people compared to other diseases; on average less than 10,00 people a year in this country have been diagnosed with ALS since Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech. (That moment became even more iconic after Gary Cooper starred in a 1956 Hollywood biopic.)
But while the cause is widely known, it has struggled to raise funds; virtually no progress has been made to combat ALS.
With the 70th anniversary of Gehrig’s farewell approach, Goldsmith essentially called out baseball and challenged the stewards of the game to accept historical responsibility and to lead the charge. A few days later George Vecsey echoed Michael’s message in his column in The New York Times.
Major League Baseball rose to the occasion. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig told me that upon reading Goldsmith’s essay, he knew “it was the right thing to do.” But Selig said that the MLB initiative would never have emerged as such a large effort without Goldsmith’s powerful voice and energetic efforts.
On July 4, Major League Baseball launched an ALS Awareness campaign, commemorating the 70th anniversary not just in Yankee stadium, but also in every league ballpark where baseball was played that day. And MLB pledged that the anniversary events were just the beginning of an ongoing commitment to the ALS cause.
For that occasion, Goldsmith, who had grown up in New York, made what he knew was likely his final trip to his hometown. He took the field in Yankee Stadium and threw out the ceremonial first pitch to a standing ovation. “ALS robs us of our future,” he emailed me afterward. “MLB’s decision has produced renewed hope.”
He knew, of course, that any hope would come too late for him. On Sunday, Nov. 1, one year to the date that his essay appeared, Michael Goldsmith died of respiratory failure due to ALS. He was 58 years old.