New York Yankee legend Lou Gehrig may not have died from the disease that came to be known by his name, according to some Minnesota lawmakers, who want the revered Mayo Clinic to release medical records they believe may show the Hall of Famer's death was due to repeated concussions.
The Mayo Clinic so far is declining to release the records for Gehrig, who died in 1941 at the age of 37. Clinic officials are skeptical of the lawmakers' theory and are not sure the disclosure would be conclusive anyway. But with increased publicity surrounding sports concussions and their roles in mental and physical health of athletes, some legislators say it is worth a look.
"My hunch is that he would be all in favor of public disclosure."
- Jonathan Eig, Lou Gehrig biographer
"But just in case they might it's ridiculous not to look at them," Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a Minneapolis Democrat and self-described baseball fanatic, told The Associated Press Thursday.
Gehrig's death has always been attributed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a debilitating neurological disease now commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Mayo Clinic spokesman Nick Hanson said the clinic can't discuss a patient without their consent or permission from a legally authorized decision-maker such as family or an estate administrator.
Kahn noted that Gehrig suffered several concussions during his career, and that he played football at Columbia University.
With the Mayo Clinic declining to make the records public, and Gehrig have no living relatives with the standing to overrule the hospital, Kahn and fellow lawmakers want to change state law to allow release of health records of patients who have been dead more than 50 years, unless descendants object or the patient expressed wishes to the contrary.
Several medical experts told the AP they doubt the records would shed any new light on the theory that Gehrig might have died from something other than ALS.
"I don't think the medical records would be helpful," said McKee, chief neuropathologist for the National VA Brain Bank and co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. "It really requires looking at the tissue and he was cremated, so it's not possible."
The president of the foundation that holds the intellectual property rights to Gehrig's legacy agreed.
"I fail to see what virtue this would have," said Dr. Rodney Howell, president of the Rip Van Winkel Foundation, which was founded by his father-in-law, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Sr., who was Gehrig's personal physician. Howell is also chairman of board of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which funds ALS research.
Even today, Howell said, ALS is diagnosed primarily by its symptoms and by signs of deterioration in the nerves that control voluntary movement. He said his views are guided heavily by the work of Dr. Stanley Appel of the Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston, one of the world's leading ALS researchers, who was dismayed to hear that the lawmakers are questioning whether Gehrig died of Lou Gehrig's disease.
"Whether head trauma may have played a role in Gehrig's development of ALS can never be verified, but it is a complete disservice to his place in history as an icon for ALS to suggest that his disease was not ALS," Appel wrote in 2010 editorial for the journal Muscle & Nerve that took issue with McKee.
Gehrig biographer Jonathan Eig, who tried unsuccessfully to get Gehrig's medical records while researching his 2005 book "Luckiest Man," said he was able to interview Mayo Clinic doctors who saw the records, including one who knew a doctor who treated Gehrig. He said they confirmed that the ballplayer had the classic symptoms of ALS.
Noting that Gehrig was a strong supporter of ALS research, who submitted to several experiments, Eig said he believes the ballplayer known as the "Iron Horse" would have been fine with releasing the records.
"My hunch is that he would be all in favor of public disclosure," Eig said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.