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Lot # 1125 (of 1673)   < Previous Lot | Next Lot >

Extraordinary 1939 Lou Gehrig Handwritten Letter Discussing His Illness

Starting Bid - $10,000.00 , Sold For - $41,125.00

Offered here is the most extraordinary Lou Gehrig handwritten letter we have ever seen, with a significance that transcends the worlds of baseball and sport. It is undoubtedly the finest Lou Gehrig letter in existence, both with regard to its content and date of origin. All Lou Gehrig letters are rare, but we have never seen anything to even remotely compare to this. This incredibly poignant two-page letter, written upon Cleveland Hotel stationery, was penned to Mrs. Joseph Neely, a woman who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, in response to her request for help in the treatment of her disease. According to the accompanying letter of provenance from Mrs. Neely's daughter, Judith Hanes, Neely was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1930 but had been unsuccessful in finding adequate medical treatment. As news of Gehrig's illness became national news, she recognized the similarity of their symptoms and wrote to him in the hopes that he could offer her some advice with regard to a cure. Although the family was not expecting a reply, Gehrig, true to his nature, did eventually respond on Sunday July 16, 1939, just twelve days following his famous speech. Offered here is the remarkable letter Gehrig wrote to Mrs. Neely, in which he candidly talks of his own condition and counsels her to seek treatment at the Mayo Clinic. Gehrig writes in full:

Sunday - Dear Mrs. Neely - It is with deep regret that I read of your condition, sclerosis - However, the condition in which I am afflicted may differ from the way your are inflicted, so if I told you of my treatments, I might be hurting you instead of helping. I cannot too strongly urge you to visit Mayo Clinic as soon as you see your way clear. You may feel that you cannot afford it, but I can assure you they are the most reasonable institution imaginable - and I'm sure they will find out in short order what will prevent growing worse each year. I too was doctoring, with no success - and in less than a month I definitely feel they have checked it for me - I have gained about 8 pounds in the last 3 weeks since my return - A visit now may seem very expensive, but in the long run I believe you will agree it was the cheapest. - May I wish you every success and a quick recovery - Respectfully - Lou Gehrig.

Gehrig checked into the Mayo Clinic on June 13, 1939, in the hopes of discovering the reason for his sudden loss of strength and coordination. One week later he was given the answer: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatal disease of the central nervous system for which there is no cure. News of Gehrig's illness spread quickly and on July 4th the Yankees paid tribute to their captain by holding Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium. It was at that event that Gehrig gave the most moving speech in sports history, made famous by the immortal line, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." This letter finds Gehrig openly discussing his disease, now commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," as well as offering his support for others who have been stricken with similar afflictions. We have never seen another letter from this time period in which Gehrig discusses his illness. Unfortunately, the saddest part of the letter is in reading Gehrig's mistaken belief that the disease is in remission ("I definitely feel they have checked it for me - I have gained about 8 pounds in the last 3 weeks since my return."). Despite the fact that he might have been feeling all right on the day of this letter, the reality was that Gehrig's health was deteriorating sharply. Even the mere act of writing soon became exhausting for him and, unbeknownst to many at the time, his wife and a secretary handled nearly all of his written correspondence for the remainder of his life. For that reason, Gehrig signed items of any kind, let alone handwritten letters, dating from the final two years of his life are virtually nonexistent. To find any letter, let alone one of this length and content, actually written by Gehrig between the years 1939 and 1941, is simply remarkable. Soon after writing this letter, Gehrig became too weak to respond to subsequent letters he received from others with the same or similar illnesses. He even arranged to have letters of encouragement printed, which were signed with a special signature ink stamp made specifically for this purpose, so that his family could help him respond to others in need. This letter from Mrs. Neely was one of the very first of its type received by Gehrig. It must have struck a very special chord and he was determined and miraculously was able to provide a personal response on this day. This letter may be the only such personal response. Though in spirit he later honored others similarly in need of help with the preprinted letters of encouragement, his deteriorating condition precluded handwritten personalized responses. His letter to Mrs. Neely represents how he would have liked to respond to all seeking his advice, as befitting a true hero like Lou Gehrig, if only he could have done so.

The letter, which is written on two sides of a single fold-over sheet of Hotel Cleveland stationery, is accompanied by the original mailing envelope. The envelope is addressed, in Gehrig's hand, to "Mrs. Joseph Neely - West Middlesex - Penna" and is postmarked "Cleveland, Ohio - Jul 17 1939." Both the text and Gehrig's signature have been boldly scripted in black fountain pen and grade "9/10" overall. The letter (6.75 x 10.5 inches, unfolded) displays normal mailing folds and is in Excellent condition. Also included with the letter and original envelope is a one-page typed letter of provenance from Judith Hanes, the daughter of Mrs. Neely, in which she notes that while her parents, due to finances, did not take his advice to go to the Mayo Clinic, her mother lived until 1961, past her 61st birthday. A second letter written by Gehrig on July 16th, that corresponds to the offered letter, can be found in Jonathan Eig's fine biography of Lou Gehrig, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. That second letter, which is much briefer and addressed to his doctor, is also penned upon Cleveland Hotel stationery and dated simply "Sunday." What is most interesting about the letter cited in Eig's book is the fact that Gehrig, in addition to thanking his doctor for his fine service, also makes mention of his weight gain.

Lou Gehrig, like his equally famous teammate Babe Ruth, is an iconic figure and one of the few players in baseball history whose fame transcends the sport. Gehrig's quiet dignity and courage in the face of extreme adversity have long been admired by generations of baseball fans and made him one of the true immortals of the game. This letter, which is both moving and inspirational, exemplifies those heroic traits and stands as a true testament to his noble nature. This is a museum-quality piece and one that would be the highlight of even the most advanced collection. LOA from James Spence/JSA. Reserve $10,000. Estimate (open). SOLD FOR $41,125.00


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