Jack Cuddy: The Man Who Didn’t Appreciate Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day

Sports writer Jack Cuddy passed away 54 years ago, but his work is finding a new audience this week.

Specifically, people are reading a piece Cuddy wrote 80 years ago in advance of Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, the iconic ceremony marking Gehrig’s retirement from the New York Yankees after he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

Cuddy pooh-poohed the whole idea of the disease and insisted that the Yankees executives had hatched the whole thing up to sell tickets to the July 4 doubleheader.

“Personally. I don’t care what Gehrig’s got,” Cuddy wrote for United Press. “But I’d like to exchange my body for during the next 40 or 50 years. And I’m pretty sure I’d do all right — regardless of the experts’ argument over the Latin or Greek declensions of what Larruping Lou may or may not have.”

Eighty years later, the piece is being called the worst take in sports history.

Who was Jack Cuddy?

That Cuddy might have unwittingly wanted to trade bodies with Gehrig is understandable.

They were about the same age, and, as Cuddy’s friend, the great columnist Red Smith, wrote, Cuddy was a chubby fellow who resembled a kewpie doll.

Cuddy was a well-respected boxing writer who covered all the major fights for the second-largest wire service from 1932 until 1965.

Smith wrote that Cuddy was from Tonopah, Nevada. He managed to find work as a news reporter at a number of big-city newspapers until he was hired in Atlanta for United Press.

When the composer of a well-known song died in Atlanta in 1927, Smith wrote, Cuddy supposedly interspersed lyrics from the song between paragraphs in a dispatch about the man’s life and death. This, Smith wrote, impressed somebody in the upper echelons of UP, and Cuddy went to New York.

He transferred to sports in 1932. Boxing was Cuddy’s forte, but for many years he wrote a general sports column, which ran in newspapers around the country.

Confusion

In fairness to Cuddy, there was a lot of confusion about Gehrig’s diagnosis and prognosis.

“No one knew what the heck the disease was,” Gehrig’s Yankees teammate Tommy Henrich was quoted as saying in Jonathan Eig’s “The Luckiest Man Alive.”

Yankees general manager Ed Barrow said Gehrig had a form of infantile paralysis.

Eig wrote that Barrow released a letter from the doctor that used the word “poliomyelitis.” Reporters thought this was a form of polio.

Gehrig was telling teammates he had 50-50 chance of beating the disease. Only a small circle of insiders knew the score on this one.

Almost no one thought Gehrig was going to die within two years from ALS, Eig wrote.

So wrong

Of course, Eig pointed out, if they called a knowledgeable physician, the writers would have possessed a better idea of the situation.

Instead, they assumed. And Cuddy assumed the worse.

It is a journalist’s job to cut through some of the double-talk and evasiveness of politicians, executives, star athletes, and celebrities and to point out the absurdities of situations.

But Cuddy alleged a grand conspiracy, involving Mayo Clinic doctors, the Yankees front office, and Gehrig. The writer went beyond healthy skepticism, which the sports media often lacks, and exhibited cynicism.

Cuddy’s column should serve as a reminder to bloggers and commentators — including this one — that when you know, absolutely know, what someone else is thinking — and clearly you are just guessing— you do so at your own peril.

The risk is making a giant fool of yourself.

And as people keep finding out, anything thought you express publicly, or in some cases privately, can outlive you by decades thanks to the miracle that is the Internet.

And wrong again

Cuddy knew at some point he was wrong. Gehrig died on June 3, 1941. Being based in New York, Cuddy may have known well before then Gehrig’s condition was serious.

If Cuddy ever wrote about how sorry or wrong he was, I couldn’t find it in a search of newspapers.com.

When Gehrig died, which would have been a natural time to revisit the subject and write a mea culpa, Cuddy was covering the lead up to the Billy Conn vs Joe Louis fight, the biggest boxing match of that era.

Incidentally, Cuddy predicted Conn, the underdog, would win. The writer was wrong about that, too.

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