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Pete Frates, who raised millions for ALS research by championing the Ice Bucket Challenge, dies at 34

Pete Frates (center) with his 4-year-old daughter Lucy and wife Julie by his side in June 2019.
Pete Frates (center) with his 4-year-old daughter Lucy and wife Julie by his side in June 2019.David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Peter Frates was looking for a fastball as he stood at the plate in a men’s league game one August evening in 2011. Instead, he took his first step toward changing the lives of untold thousands of people he would never meet.

A pitch struck his left wrist, and the lingering injury led to a diagnosis months later of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The devastating news left him determined to help find a cure, even if it arrived too late to save him.

Mr. Frates was 34 when he died Monday in his Beverly home, his family at his side. Through his work helping to raise tens of millions of dollars by popularizing the Ice Bucket Challenge, his impact on ALS research will be felt for generations.

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“Today Heaven received our angel: Peter Frates,” the family said in a statement released through Boston College, his alma mater.

Using social media, the former BC star center fielder popularized the Ice Bucket Challenge as a way to focus attention on ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In the process, he inspired an unprecedented outpouring of support for research — more than $220 million worldwide, according to the ALS Association.

“Upon my diagnosis, it became abundantly clear that my calling was to raise ALS awareness and to fight for a brighter future for all those affected today and those yet to come,” Mr. Frates, who lived in Beverly, wrote in a 2014 column for Bleacher Report, a sports website.

His family’s statement said that Mr. Frates — “a husband to Julie, a father to Lucy, a son to John and Nancy, a brother to Andrew and Jennifer” — had encouraged countless people through his advocacy.

“Pete was an inspiration to so many people around the world who drew strength from his courage and resiliency,” the family said. “A natural born leader and the ultimate teammate, Pete was a role model for all, especially young athletes, who looked up to him for his bravery and unwavering positive spirit in the face of adversity.”

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Through championing the Ice Bucket Challenge, he became the most public face of ALS since Gehrig, the legendary Yankees first baseman, lent his name to the disease, retiring from playing with his famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939.

Sports Illustrated bestowed its Inspiration of the Year award on Mr. Frates in 2014. The journal Nature added him that year to its list of 10 people who mattered, and in a Fenway Park ceremony in June 2017, he donated four items to the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s museum collection: a cap and glove from his days as captain of BC’s team, and the bucket and sunglasses he used in 2014 for his bucket challenge video.

“Remarkably, Pete never complained about his illness,” his family said. “Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to give hope to other patients and their families. In his lifetime, he was determined to change the trajectory of a disease that had no treatment or cure.”

From around the world, officials and organizations offered condolences and praised his enormous efforts, often via @PeteFrates3 on Twitter.

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Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker called him one of “the most courageous and inspirational people I have ever met,” and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Mr. Frates “helped us remember that we’re all one family & we have to look out for one another.”

Jan Cellucci, whose husband, former Governor Paul Cellucci, died from ALS in 2013, tweeted that her family “knows all too well the alternately joyous and heart-wrenching journey you and your family have been on.”

“While battling one of the world’s darkest diseases, Pete taught us how undaunted optimism can lay the groundwork to inspire a revolutionary movement,” Tom Werner, the Red Sox chairman, said as part of the team’s statement.

Mr. Frates got the idea for promoting the Ice Bucket Challenge from Patrick Quinn of Yonkers, N.Y., who also was diagnosed with ALS. They met online and became friends when Quinn traveled to Boston for treatment.

Participants in the challenge dumped a bucket of ice water on their heads, or let someone else do the honors, then posted videos online nominating others to do the same and to donate to ALS charities.

The fund-raiser quickly spread. Walsh joined in, and then-President Obama made a donation after being nominated by Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy. Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots invoked Mr. Frates’s name in his ice bucket moment, which is part of a YouTube montage that includes famous sports teams, ordinary families, and even a helicopter dumping ice water on a hiker in a stirring mountain setting.

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Justin Bieber posted an ice bucket video, and Oprah Winfrey screamed through hers, after calling out a list of nominations that included Steven Spielberg, who followed suit: “Oh, man, that’s cold,” Spielberg shouted as the icy water dripped off.

“The impact Pete has made is unprecedented,” Lucie Bruijn, the ALS Association’s chief scientist, told the Globe in 2014. “I travel all over the world, and now everyone knows of ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge.”

The association has said that money raised by the challenge, and other donations it inspired worldwide, helped fund global gene-sequencing research that identified genes linked to the disease, along with helping to finance clinical trials and the development of drug therapies.

Though Mr. Frates would have preferred to still be out on the baseball diamond, where he had posted a .400 batting average in summer league play, he racked up hall of fame statistics while raising ALS awareness.

Take the disease’s Wikipedia page: In August 2014, during the height of the Ice Bucket Challenge, the page’s monthly hits rose to about 3 million from a typical average of about 163,000. Meanwhile, ALS charities that at times had struggled to raise money benefited as cumulative donations to various nonprofits soared past the $100 million mark.

“We have never seen anything like this in the history of the disease,” Barbara Newhouse, chief executive of the ALS Association, said in 2014. “We couldn’t be more thrilled with the level of compassion, generosity, and sense of humor that people are exhibiting as they take part in this viral initiative.”

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A son of Nancy and John Frates, Peter Frates grew up in Beverly and graduated in 2003 from St. John’s Prep in Danvers, where he was a three-sport athlete. His baseball exploits at Boston College, where he studied communications and history, and from which he graduated in 2007, can be found on YouTube.

In April 2007, he set a modern-day team record by hitting a grand slam, a three-run homer, and a double en route to eight RBIs in a single game. Even that day, however, didn’t top what he called “perhaps the biggest moment of my baseball career,” when he was a junior. “In the Beanpot Championship against Harvard, I hit a home run over the right-field wall in historic Fenway Park — a place any Boston-area kid grew up dreaming of playing in,” he wrote for bleacherreport.com.

He played professionally in a German baseball league after graduating and coached youngsters there for a time before returning home to sell insurance and play in a summer league.

Several months before his March 2012 diagnosis, he met Julie Kowalik on the Fourth of July on a beach in Marblehead, her hometown. They married in Marblehead on June 1, 2013, and with a helping hand, Mr. Frates set aside his wheelchair to walk her down the aisle after they spoke their vows and kissed. Their daughter, Lucy, was born in August 2014.

“Since Pete was diagnosed, he knew he was going to take part in changing the path of this disease,” Julie told the Globe in 2014.

In addition to his wife, daughter, and parents, Mr. Frates leaves his siblings, Andrew Frates and Jennifer Mayo; his paternal grandfather, Jack Frates; and his maternal grandparents, Gerald and Joan D’Alfonso.

A funeral Mass for Mr. Frates will be said at 11 am. Friday in St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Chestnut Hill.

“For those who would like to extend an expression of sympathy, please consider making a donation to the Peter Frates Family Foundation, 21 Landers Drive, Beverly, MA 01915 or online at petefrates.com/donate. Pete’s foundation’s mission is to aid progressed ALS patients in their desire to stay at home with those who love them most,” his family’s statement said.

More than two decades ago, as a 10-year-old playing for the Cubs in Beverly’s Little League, Mr. Frates chose No. 3, which Yankees slugger Babe Ruth wore, and kept the number all his life. But it was Gehrig, Ruth’s teammate, who “inspires me every day,” Mr. Frates wrote for bleacherreport.com.

Thinking back about the day he researched his symptoms online and came across what would turn out to be his diagnosis, he wrote:

“My dream is for this article to be found by someone in a Google search one day — much like the one that linked my symptoms to ALS — and for he or she to wonder how anyone ever could have died from something treated so easily. I want the 100th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s speech to be a celebration of a courageous man who became the poster boy for a disease with a cure, not a cruel reminder of how nothing has changed in a century.”


Travis Andersen contributed to this report. Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.