A deeply personal bit of Lou Gehrig memorabilia is coming to auction, providing a rare glimpse into, not the hero of the baseball diamond that was revered by throngs of fans, but rather, a man grappling with medical uncertainty and coming to grips with his ailing health.
The item, featured in Heritage Auctions’ Winter Platinum Night Sports Collectibles Catalog Auction, is a signed, four-page letter from Gehrig that was penned to Dr. Paul O’Leary, who had diagnosed his condition and kept in contact with him following Gehrig’s visit to the Mayo Clinic. The letter was written in December 1939, several months after his diagnosis and retirement. It’s expected to sell for $80,000 or more.
Gehrig would eventually pass away at the age of 37 from ALS, which was a mysterious illness in that day. Gehrig’s high-profile battle with it eventually led to the term Lou Gehrig’s disease as a moniker for ALS.
Each page of the four-page letter to O’Leary is 10 x 6.75, typed on Gehrig’s own letterhead and remains in good condition, complete with the original mailing folds and staple holes.
O’Leary saved his correspondence with the famous Yankees first baseman. After his death in 1955, the letters eventually wound up in the hands of a private collector. Another Gehrig letter to O’Leary sold at auction in 2014.
Medical privacy laws be damned, the letter to be sold by Heritage appears to be the response to a communication from O’Leary. He updates the doctor on his condition, requests a “lipiadal test” and also discusses the status of a friend (Al Reiser) whom he believes is suffering from the same ailment and showing marked improvement.
One heart-tugging entry in the letter has Gehrig asking for a truthful outlook on his condition as he grapples with his declining strength and overall health.
The letter offers insight into the personal relationship he had with O’Leary, his wife and family with Gehrig even cracking a few jokes.
At the end, Gehrig signs the letter in pencil, treating the signature as a gauge of his remaining hand strength. Below the signature, he writes: “A specimen of my handwriting for Dr. Waltman.”
The auction containing the letter will open Jan. 31 and will close as part of the two-day event, Feb. 22-23.