Hunter remembered at ALS benefit
Event honors those raising funds to combat Lou Gehrig's disease
NEW YORK -- Lou Gehrig's name has been attached to the disease that ended his Hall of Fame playing career in 1939 and took his life in 1941. The memory of another former Yankees player and Hall of Famer, who suffered and died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1999, was invoked on Monday night at the 14th annual Lou Gehrig Sports Award Benefit.
Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles and Tommy John were all teammates of Jim "Catfish" Hunter with the Yankees in the 1970s, and each was a part of Monday night's proceedings at the affair, which featured Jeremy Shaap as master of ceremonies and Bob Costas as a special presenter to award winners Chambliss, Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax and tennis great John McEnroe.
Nettles accepted the honor on behalf of Chambliss, who was unable to attend because of an illness in his family, and said, "Anyone involved with the Yankees should have knowledge of the devastating effects of ALS. The disease took the lives of two great Yankees. The real heroes are those fighting to eliminate ALS. Those are the people we should applaud."
The Broadway Ballroom at the Marriott Marquis Hotel was filled with such members of the New York Chapter of the ALS Association, which in 2008 raised a record $3.9 million to provide service to ALS patients and families, expand clinical programs, support ALS research and broaden public awareness of the disease, which remains without a cure.
At a reception prior to the dinner, Nettles and John, who took part in an auction to raise more funds, spoke about how the disease ravaged their former teammate.
"Cat's mind was still 100 percent sharp, but his body broke down," Nettles said of Hunter. "He couldn't move his arms, but he never complained, and never lost his great sense of humor. It was hard to see him suffer like that, but he never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him."
"Catfish pitched every fourth day and 300 innings a year," John said. "This strong man ended up having his wife dress him and feed him. His brain was there, but his body was gone."
John also recalled talking early in his career to former Yankees clubhouse manager Pete Sheehy, who told John how Gehrig battled with the disease.
"The league allowed Lou to sit in the dugout in street clothes," John said. "Pete said that Lou's legs were shaky and he had trouble going down the stairs into the runway. But when he stumbled and someone tried to help him, he would say, 'Thanks, but I can do it myself.' He didn't want to give in to it. Catfish was the same way."
"Six years ago, I lost a close friend of mine to ALS," Koufax said. "He was a great friend and a better person. He was one of those people who made you feel better about yourself. Thank you all for your generosity in fighting this disease."
McEnroe, a native New Yorker and lifelong Yankees fan, told the crowd that he was in the stands at Yankee Stadium that October night in 1976 when Chambliss hit his pennant-winning home run against the Royals and resembled an NFL fullback trying to avoid the tackles of fans as he rounded the bases.
"I was worried about whether Chris would make it all the way around," Nettles said. "When I saw all those people coming out of the stands, I ran from the dugout to the plate and grabbed Chris' bat. I gave it to him in the clubhouse, and he was happy. That home run was the most thrilling moment of my career, and I wasn't the one who hit it, but it got us into the World Series. That's all that mattered."
Josh Javits, son of the late Sen. Jacob Javits, who died of ALS, presented the Jacob K. Javits Lifetime Achievement Award to Denis J. "D.J." Carey III, nephew of former New York Gov. Hugh Carey, 92, who congratulated him in a speech from his seat in the audience. D.J. Carey, who has ALS, has played an active role in fund-raising, education and research efforts, and he joined lobbying efforts in Washington and Albany, N.Y., to encourage the passage of ALS-specific legislation and to advocate for increased funding to find a cure.
Other sports luminaries in attendance included former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, who opened the dinner with a splendid rendition of "God Bless America"; former football Giants tight end Howard Cross; and former Rangers star and Hockey Hall of Famer Rod Gilbert.
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.