Major League Baseball will hold a sportwide Lou Gehrig Day starting this season, honoring the Hall of Fame New York Yankees first baseman whose grace and courage fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis inspired a group of those affected by the disease to make June 2 synonymous with him.
The plans, announced by MLB on Thursday morning, include an annual tribute in which uniformed personnel will wear a jersey patch celebrating Gehrig, and a "4-ALS" logo -- commemorating his No. 4 -- will be displayed around stadiums. The league will use the occasion to raise money and awareness to battle ALS and pay homage to ALS advocacy groups like the LG4Day committee, which turned an off-the-cuff text into a cause that will bring together the sport.
"Major League Baseball is thrilled to celebrate the legacy of Lou Gehrig, whose humility and courage continue to inspire our society," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a prepared statement. "While ALS has been closely identified with our game since Lou's legendary career, the pressing need to find cures remains. We look forward to honoring all the individuals and families, in baseball and beyond, who have been affected by ALS and hope Lou Gehrig Day advances efforts to end this disease."
On June 24, 2019, songwriter Bryan Wayne Galentine, who had been diagnosed with the disease two years earlier, texted friends whom he'd met through the tight-knit ALS community: "do you think it would [be] possible and appropriate to approach mlb with doing something with Lou Gehrig like they've done Jackie Robinson?"
Over the past two years, Galentine and his co-chairs, Adam Wilson and Chuck Haberstroh, have strategized to persuade MLB to honor Gehrig with a day as it does Robinson and Roberto Clemente. For nearly eight decades, Gehrig has been the face of ALS, a neurodegenerative disease with no cure. Gehrig died June 2, 1941, the same date of the first start in his record 2,130-consecutive-games-played streak that had begun 16 years earlier.
As much as baseball has been synonymous with the disease -- from Gehrig's "Luckiest Man Alive" speech to Pete Frates, the former college star who helped popularize the Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised more than $100 million -- the goal of LG4Day was for something more specific than teams holding their own ALS awareness days. From that first text to the first meeting in August 2019 with the seven original members of LG4Day, they sought tangible ends, and Galentine epitomized the group's spirit.
"He just said, 'I can sit here and wither away, or I can get up off my keister and do something,'" Staci Galentine, Bryan's wife, told ESPN. "From day one, that was his mission."
The group grew in size and tightened its strategy. Going straight to MLB would be fruitless. The league was loath to mandate any sort of a sportwide edict. If Lou Gehrig Day was going to happen, it would be with the support of all 30 teams.
Wilson, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2015, was the organizer, canny with logistics. Haberstroh, whose mother, Patty, was diagnosed with ALS in 2017, was the voice, always at the ready for a chat. Galentine, whose friends called him B-Wayne, was the connector -- charming, personable and capable of getting players such as Oakland's Stephen Piscotty and Colorado's Sam Hilliard, both of whom had parents with ALS, onboard.
Seven teams joined the cause before the group hit what felt like a dead end. That didn't stop Galentine, even as he was losing his ability to move and using eye-gaze technology to communicate.
"He spent so much time on it," said Galentine's elder son, Grayson, who is 16. "Especially when we were in quarantine. Basically from whenever he woke up to whenever it was time for dinner, he was in his room on his computer."
The breakthrough came Oct. 19. Arizona Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall, Boston Red Sox president Sam Kennedy and Minnesota Twins president Dave St. Peter agreed to email the presidents of the nearly two dozen teams that hadn't pledged support for a Lou Gehrig Day. Within minutes, the responses poured in. Of course. Absolutely. What a great idea. For two years, LG4Day had envisioned this, and it was finally happening.
"They deserve all the credit," St. Peter said. "The story they tell resonated with all of us. When those guys reached out, it was a no-brainer."
By Oct. 20, less than 24 hours after they sent the email, all 30 teams were in. MLB's rubber stamp would be next. Nobody was happier than Galentine. Then ALS, ever cruel and unrelenting, turned that moment of joy into sadness. Galentine died Oct. 22. Of the 27 core members of LG4Day, he was the sixth taken by ALS.
"It became his purpose," Staci Galentine said. "He ate, drank, lived, breathed it. To be able to take this game and this disease, put them together and see it come to fruition ... he knew it was coming. I'm so thankful for that day we found out this was happening. It is a celebration. This is not a sad thing. It's something he believed in so deeply."
Now, June 2 can be a day for baseball, a day for Lou Gehrig, but also a day for others, like Bryan Wayne Galentine, like Adam Wilson, like Pete Frates and his Ice Bucket Challenge partner Pat Quinn, like Gretchen Piscotty and Jim Hilliard and Patty Haberstroh, like the estimated 5,000 people a year in the United States diagnosed with ALS.
"This disease chose baseball," St. Peter said. "When you think about it, I think we have a responsibility and an obligation to continue to pay it forward. I can't imagine there's a franchise in the game that hasn't been touched by ALS. For us, it's personal. Other teams share that view. Certainly we all share the connection to Lou Gehrig and what he stood for and represented. Finding a way to celebrate his legacy and the class and dignity he found in his darkest hours is something that's truly worthwhile."