The Kid, the Legend, the Ball

Iron Horse's legacy lingers at Mayo Clinic through donation

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Signed by Lou Gehrig in 1939, Bob Tierney's baseball will now become part of Mayo Clinic's historical collection.

Bob Tierney connected with Yankees legendary first baseman Lou Gehrig instantly.

"We hit it off," says Bob, now 91 years old.

The advice the Iron Horse gave the 15-year-old changed his life.

The year was 1939. Bob would come to the fields just south of Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to hit and play catch with the American Legion team, a group of young men in love with the game but with long odds of making a career out of it. Gehrig, too, was looking for the game he'd spent a lifetime mastering. Gehrig was eager to find local players in Rochester when he asked the hotelier, who pointed the Yankees legend to the same fields that Bob and the rest of the boys occupied.

Gehrig had just ended his record-setting 2,130 consecutive game streak because of puzzling, debilitating symptoms. He lingered at the fields during his time in Rochester, watching and waiting for Mayo Clinic's formal diagnosis.

"He couldn't stay away from baseball," Bob says. Bob remembers mustering up the courage one day to ask for Gehrig's autograph on a special ball an uncle had given him.

It was Gehrig's 36th birthday, and Gehrig had to cradle the ball in his left arm because he was losing the function of his hands.

After watching Bob play, Gehrig suggested Bob switch positions. After all, Bob's left leg was "gimpy" by his own admission and second base is a tough spot for all but the rangiest of athletes.

Later that day, Gehrig would receive his diagnosis — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease without a cure. The disease carries his name to this day.

For Bob, ALS strikes even closer

Bob took Gehrig's advice and transitioned to the mound despite also missing a thumb on his throwing hand. He parlayed it into a 22-year career in amateur leagues and the minors.

While Bob never pitched to players of Gehrig's caliber in his own career, he gained a much deeper connection to the Hall of Famer nearly a half century after he died.

In the mid-90s, Bob's wife, Geraldine, was diagnosed with ALS.

"Gehrig died in 1941," Bob says. "My wife got the damn thing, and she died from it in 1999."

ALS is a type of motor neuron disease that causes nerve cells to gradually break down and die. There is no cure, but Mayo Clinic is currently conducting two clinical trials that use stem cells to treat the disease.

Giving back

Marty Tierney and his father, Bob Tierney, show off the ball Gehrig signed in 1939.

Back to the ball.

Andy Chafoulias, a developer based in Rochester, Minnesota, was looking for a way to teach his 11-year-old daughter, Taylor, the importance of giving. Andy had gone to school with Bob's son, Marty, and they figured out a plan to donate the Gehrig ball, which was also later signed by another Yankee, Leo Durocher, to Mayo Clinic.

"I thought it was very special that Marty's family has held this ball for 75 years-plus, and when he and I discussed what to do with the ball and do something positive, not only for our local community but for Mayo Clinic, it just made sense to purchase the ball and donate it back to the Mayo Clinic," Andy says. "I'm trying to teach my daughter how to give back to communities and to be blessed for where we are in our life and to help others in need.

"ALS is a serious, serious disease that needs a lot of research. And after she and I had a long discussion, she felt good about it, and I thought it was important that we both did it together as father and daughter."

The ball in the Hall

Meanwhile, the ball continues to hold a special place in the Tierney family's legacy.

Bob is one of a handful of people still alive who spent time with Gehrig in Rochester and calls the interactions one of the highlights of his life. Mayo Clinic Heritage Hall Director Matt Dacy says the ball is one of the only known Gehrig artifacts from the Hall of Famer's time in Minnesota that stayed in the original owner's hands for more than 75 years.

Thanks to Andy and Taylor's donation, the ball is part of the Mayo Clinic archive and historical collection, joining artifacts such as the Nobel Prize medallion for the discovery of cortisone, letters signed by U.S. presidents to their Mayo Clinic physicians, and films depicting top-secret World War II research on the G-suit and high-altitude mask. The ball will be displayed in a future exhibit in Heritage Hall, scheduled to open in 2016.

And Bob couldn't be prouder of the ball's humble beginning.

"I've had it ever since I was a 15-year-old kid," Bob says. "I had no idea that it would ever come to something like this."

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