Mike Ginsberg

Mike Ginsberg

On July 4, 1939, in his famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, Lou Gehrig, terminally ill with ALS, declared himself the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Seventy five years later, and through the power of social media, more than one million people have taken the “Ice Bucket Challenge”, spreading awareness and raising money to fight the crippling disease. Understanding the background of both events enables us to appreciate the ability we all have to make a difference in the lives of others.

Henry Louis “Lou” or “Buster” Gehrig (June 19, 1903 – June 2, 1941) played 17 seasons in Major League Baseball for the New York Yankees (1923–1939). He amassed a list of noteworthy achievements, including:

  • A career batting average of .340, tallying 493 home runs and 1,995 runs batted in (RBIs)
  • Seven-All-Stars
  • Six World Series championships
  • The prestigious Triple Crown in 1934
  • Twice named the American League’s (AL) Most Valuable Player
  • Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939
  • The first MLB player to have his uniform number retired
  • Set several major league records during his career, including the most career grand slams (23) (since broken by Alex Rodriguez) and most consecutive games played (2,130), a record that stood for 56 years and was long considered unbreakable until surpassed by Cal Ripken, Jr. in 1995.

Gehrig’s hit streak ended in 1939 after he was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disorder now commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease in North America, which forced him to retire at age 36 and claimed his life two years later. His extensive baseball career was capped off by his legendary “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech (link to speech) at the original Yankee Stadium.

Fast forward 75 years. Over the past three months, people across America have accepted the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” dumping a bucket of ice water over their head or donating to the ALS Association in the United States, in what has become the social media frenzy this summer. The results have been staggering even by internet standards:

  • Sharing more than 1.2 million videos on Facebook between June 1 and Aug. 13
  • Mentioning the phenomenon more than 2.2 million times on Twitter since July 29
  • The ALS Association receiving $13.3 million in donations since July 29, compared with $1.7 million during the same period last year
  • 260,000 new donors registering to the ALS association during the same time period

The Ice Bucket Challenge went viral several weeks before it was tied to ALS. There’s been some lack of clarity about the origin of the craze but data from the Facebook data science team heavily supports one theory: the ice bucket challenge originated with Peter Frates, a former captain of the Boston College baseball team.

Frates is 29 years old, and he was diagnosed with ALS in 2012. After Frates posted his “ice bucket challenge” video on July 31, the challenge took off. Instead of having ice water poured on his head — “ice water and ALS are a bad mix,” he said on his Facebook page — he posted a video of himself bouncing his head to “Ice Ice Baby,” the 1989 hit song by the rapper Vanilla Ice. He challenged some friends, and the stunt spread quickly through Boston circles, then across the web until last week when a parade of boldfaced names joined in. Last week, Mr. Frates again took the challenge, this time having ice dumped on his head at Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park (view here).

Lou Gehrig’s memorable speech in 1939 and Peter Frates “Ice Bucket Challenge” will forever be linked together by the powerful message they conveyed. The Ice Bucket Challenge may not stand the test of time like Gehrig’s famous speech, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that both men made a meaningful and positive impact on the lives of the people they touched. We all have that ability.

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