Thursday, June 2, 2016

Every year on this day, I still don't like Cal Ripken

Today’s the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s death. He played for the New York Yankees from 1923-’39. So there are few people, anymore, who remember him though of course we all know something of him.

The one-sentence summary of Gehrig’s career is, He was the guy whose record for consecutive-game appearances seemed unassailable for decades; his streak was ended by a rare disease – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – that is now better known as ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’. (Forgive me the semicolon.)

It’s bad enough that a post appears in Backmarker, and has nothing whatsoever to do with motorcycles or motorcycle racing, so I will only provide the most cursory overview of Gehrig’s achievements in the sport of baseball. His Yankees won the World Series six times, he was league MVP twice, he had a career .340 batting average and, almost 70 years after his career came to an end, he still appears numerous times in the record books. In 1969, the Baseball Writers’ Association voted him the best first baseman of all time.

Even without ‘the streak’, he’d have been an automatic first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But, the streak.

To put Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive appearances in the Yankees’ lineup into perspective, the previous record had been held by Everett Scott – 1,307 games. Both Scott and Gehrig, of course, played in an era before effective batting helmets (or, usually, any helmets at all). Gehrig was knocked unconscious at least once by pitchers.

They played before modern sports trainers. I can only wonder what Gehrig’d’ve thought of massage therapists or cryotherapy. But for a long time even players who had those advantages never came close. Steve Garvey’s modern-era streak ended over 900 games shy of Gehrig’s.

To be sure, Yankee managers did from time to time conspire to put Lou Gehrig into games as a pinch hitter for example, to keep his streak alive. X-rays, taken later in his life, showed evidence of several fractures sustained – and played through – during the streak.

Although not yet diagnosed with ALS (which at the time was known as ‘infantile paralysis’) Gehrig’s play deteriorated in the 1938 season. Early in the ’39 season, he approached Yankees manager Joe McCarthy and said, “I’m benching myself, Joe, for the good of the team.”

Gehrig’s condition was diagnosed by Charles Mayo, of Mayo Clinic fame. He was told that he’d feel no particular pain, but that he would gradually lose all motor function. His mind would remain alert to the end. He chose not to keep any of that a secret.

A few months later, the Yankees held ‘Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day’, in the break between a double-header. There is no surviving complete film, but he stood on the field and delivered this speech to the sold-out crowd...

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.  
When you look around, wouldn't you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? Sure, I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.  
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift—that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies—that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter—that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body—it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed—that's the finest I know.  
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

Even the cynical bastards in the press box fought back tears.

After retiring from baseball, Gehrig could’ve made a fortune as a public speaker. Instead, he took a position on the New York State parole board, because he felt strongly that the criminal justice system needed to be balanced by some sense of forgiveness.

He died on June 2, 1941.

When the baseball world returned to something like normal after WWII, people looked at the steady march of league records and realized that all things must pass, although one record seemed unassailable: Gehrig’s 2,130-game streak.

Some time in the 1980s, my dad and I declared a truce, and I started coming over on Sundays to watch baseball with him on TV. When Cal Ripken Jr. – on a streak of his own – passed Everett Scott to assume second place in the record books, I’m sure it was noted.

I don't remember the first time I heard a color man speculate that Ripken might, in fact, top Gehrig's record. But by 1993 or '94, the topic of Ripken’s streak came up every time the Orioles played.

As the 1995 season wound down (the Orioles finished third in their division) I obsessed a little over Ripken’s streak, but I was hoping for a different ending. I knew he could surpass Gehrig’s record. But I wished that he would choose not to. 

The Orioles hosted the California Angels September 4th – 6th. Those games were to be Ripken’s 2,129th – 2,131st consecutive appearances. (The league schedulers made sure they’d be home games.)

How fucking great would it have been, if on September 5th, Ripken had walked over to Phil Regan and said, “I’m taking myself out of the lineup, coach. I’ve got an ache in my stomach.”

Ripken would have secured #2 on the consecutive-games list. Even if he’d taken himself out of the lineup on September 6thth – leaving him tied with Lou – his action would have secured a place, alongside Gehrig’s ‘luckiest man’ speech, as one of the moments when an athlete transcends his sport.

I suppose he was under a lot of pressure not to do that. President Clinton and VP Al Gore were both at the game. But how fucking great would it have been for Ripken, in civvies, to sit down beside Bill, look over and say, “Great day to watch a game, huh?”

Ripken went on to play another 500+ consecutive games. His streak after his streak would have been one of the top 30, in a sport with a long memory and an obsession with statistics.

I’m not taking anything away from Ripken, but I’ll never really forgive him, either. Because he could have left Lou Gehrig at the top of that list for all time – 2,130* forever.

With the biggest, most beautiful asterisk in history of record-keeping right beside it.


  1. But ya gotta admit, it's pretty difficult to find something over which to dislike Cal Ripken. Besides, Lou would never have wanted his record preserved artificially. RIP Lou.

    1. I'm sure you're right; Gehrig would not have wanted his record preserved artificially. After all, he didn't even want sympathy when he came down with a terrifying and incurable disease. But I'm still sorry that Ripken didn't want to preserve Gehrig's record artificially.

  2. Sorry Mark, I'm with Cal on this one. Not taking anything away from Lou, but I don't think a competitor should pick and choose when he gives his best and when he steps back for sentimental reasons. I don't think that Cal diminishes Lou in any way. And one minor point. I believe polio was known as infantile paralysis. I even remember standing in line for the little sugar cube with the vaccine.
    Mark Gardner (no "i").