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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blanchette: Bat Gehrig signed in ’33 will aid another ALS sufferer

There were two baseball bats, cut by hand from a poplar, or maybe a sycamore, and turned on a lathe in the barn on the family farm in Advance, Ind., varnished and rubbed and made perfect in a way that only someone who loves the game and its tools can.

That’s the sports part of the story. It doesn’t end there, but baseball is the least of it, really.

The heart of it resides on a shady street in Millwood, in a house made over with kindness and care in a way only people who love a friend and a cause can.

Jenny Hoff lives here now, 6 1/2 years into her stubborn tug-of-war with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease – which never really loses these battles. She has given ground in all the inevitable ways: She has lost the use of her limbs, feeding must come through a tube, her speech grows more labored. But her smile remains golden, and for all she can’t do there is simply nothing about her that’s at all broken.

“But if you want to get detailed, I miss hugging,” she said. “I love to hug. And I don’t think there’s any equipment to help with that.”

The ALS sufferer’s life is increasingly about equipment and care and, yes, cost. This is certainly true at the house in Millwood. Insurance has been exhausted. Jeff Swartz, Hoff’s partner of 20 years, lost his job after 30 years in radio and 10 months ago suffered a stroke. Friends – and strangers – have rallied to their aid, but as Hoff herself notes, the average cost to take care of an ALS patient pushes $200,000 a year.

And so there must be extraordinary measures. Which brings us back to the bat.

Yes, there’s just one now – the other burned in a long-ago house fire – and it belongs to Swartz’s son, Nick, who regards Jenny Hoff as “the anchor in my life.” And that’s why he’s set in motion an online auction he hopes could fetch as much as $100,000.

For a simple homemade bat?

Well, it’s a little more than that.

It was 1933 when Nick’s grandfather, Lowell Brown, and his brother Gerald finished those bats, and then made their way to New York City and Yankee Stadium. The details of the trip have been lost over the years, but the physical evidence – a one-of-a-kind relic – remains.

On the day of their visit, the Brown brothers got no fewer than 24 members of the ’33 Yankees to sign the bat – nine of them eventual members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Herb Pennock and Red Ruffing. Joe Sewell and Earle Combs. Lefty Gomez and Tony Lazzeri. Bill Dickey.

Babe Ruth.

And Lou Gehrig.

Gehrig, of course, would last five more full seasons before the effects of ALS forced him to the bench in 1939 and killed him two years later.

“I just think it’s no coincidence that a bat with his name on it has been handed down to me, and my stepmother has Lou Gehrig’s disease, and there’s this need,” said Nick Swartz. “It’s incredibly hard to let it go, but I know this is the right thing to do.”

Lowell Brown came to Spokane after the Korean War and made his mark in the boat business, helping pioneer the use of fiberglass. But he was also wild about baseball. He got the Babe Ruth program started in Spokane. He had box seats at Indians games and palled around with Tommy Lasorda when he managed here. Brown’s Park in the Valley is on land he bought and got the Army Corps of Engineers to develop.

And that bat rested in a gun rack in the family library, not in any special display but among bats signed by Little League and Babe Ruth teams he sponsored.

“He absolutely prized it,” said his son, Gary Brown, “but I told Nick, ‘I think your grandpa would be really proud of you.’ “

The auction runs until Aug. 18 at Bids have been few to this point, though the family has been told that action generally picks up at the end.

Jenny Hoff was 46 and had just launched Aracelia’s deli in downtown Spokane when she was diagnosed with ALS in 2006. Even in the early stages, she threw herself into advocacy and altruism. She spoke to local service clubs and lobbied in Washington, D.C., and walked and talked and raised more than $50,000 for ALS research, aid and awareness.

“I won’t lie to you – in the beginning, it was kind of selfish because it made you feel so good to do that,” she said. “But as time goes on, it’s more about it being the right thing to do. Right now, with things as they are, more than ever we need to hold each other up.”

And maybe a baseball bat is not the least of that, after all.