ON July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig stood somberly in the old Yankee Stadium and announced his retirement from baseball. Two years later the veteran first baseman was dead at age 37, a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—the disease that now bears his name. Gehrig made ALS known worldwide; Michael Goldsmith, a professor at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, is raising awareness that the battle with ALS rages on today. He was diagnosed with the incurable disease in 2006.
A tough-talking Jewish prosecutor from Queens, New York, Goldsmith came to BYU in 1985 for its proximity to ski slopes. The former assistant U.S. attorney’s sense of humor, attitude toward challenges, and experience with criminal law—as counsel to the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, he testified against mafia boss John Gotti—made him a favorite among his students. “I loved the things he did with his classes,” says Stephanie Jessen Jorgensen (JD ’93). “He’s a really positive person—it is contagious to be around.”
Even as his health declines, Goldsmith sees the bright side. “I am one of the lucky ones,” he wrote in an e-mail response for this article. “My neuromuscular decline has been steady, but slow enough to let me lead a reasonably normal life.”
While he “still had the strength to hold a bat”—ALS causes atrophy of the body’s muscles—Goldsmith signed up for a baseball camp with the Baltimore Orioles, the team he has followed since childhood. His experience at the camp gave him an idea: Major League Baseball (MLB) should dedicate the Fourth of July to raising awareness for the disease that took one of its most beloved Hall-of-Famers.
In November 2008 Goldsmith pitched his idea in a guest column in Newsweek. MLB commissioner Bud Selig read the article and immediately went to work on making the proposal a reality. Teams across the country rallied around the cause; ALS awareness events were held in all 15 ballparks where games were played on July 4, 2009. Players, managers, and umpires across the league wore special patches embroidered with the day’s theme: 4 ALS. Four was Gehrig’s number.
Goldsmith made the long trek from Utah to take center stage at the events in New York City. “It was an amazing day at Yankee Stadium and throughout Major League Baseball,” he says. During a pregame ceremony, Goldsmith sat on the infield grass in the new Yankee Stadium, his head resting on his son’s shoulder and his eyes fixed on a massive screen in center field. “After showing footage of Lou Gehrig’s farewell, they played a 6-minute feature giving my background and describing my efforts,” Goldsmith says. “I really did not feel like myself that day. Instead I considered myself as representing countless ALS patients and their families who have suffered so terribly.”
Seventy years after Gehrig’s legendary speech, Goldsmith himself threw out the first pitch before the Yankees played the Toronto Blue Jays. Attending the game was a powerful moment for Goldsmith and his family. “It personifies a theme I have spent two decades teaching my students and my own kids,” he says. “The success of that day demonstrates the power of one—that one person who feels passionately about a cause can take action and make a difference.”