Cal Ripken’s remarkable career and unbelievable streak began 30 years ago with lofty promise
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – For the second year in a row, Cal Ripken Jr. is celebrating the 30th anniversary of an event that stands as a testament to his durability.
Last year, he celebrated the 30th anniversary of the longest game in professional baseball history, a 33-inning marathon between Ripken’s Triple-A Rochester Red Wings and fellow Hall of Famer Wade Boggs Pawtucket Red Sox that began on April 18, 1981 and went 32 innings into the night and morning of April 19th before being resumed for the final inning on June 23rd.
On May 30, 1982 – 30 years ago today – Ripken began something no one really saw coming, a streak of 2,632 consecutive games. It would best Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 game streak on Sept. 6, 1995, break the world record in 1996 and end up topping the Gehrig’s unbreakable mark by more than 500.
It’s only fitting that the man who put together the longest playing streak in history participated in the longest game in professional baseball history. Just as the game included staggering numbers, the longevity of Ripken and his streak is overwhelming.
Ripken is one of eight men to hit 400 home runs and collect 3,000 hits. His 19 All-Star selections are behind only Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Stan Musial. Not only did he break the Iron Horse’s 56-year record and set the consecutive games mark, the Iron Man also played 8,243 consecutive innings in 904 games from 1982-87. During the streak, which encompassed most of 17 seasons, Ripken played 2,504 complete games and more than 23,100 innings while hitting .277 with 534 doubles and 381 home runs. Ripken reached base at a .345 clip and slugged .449. He had 1,061 walks – 103 of which were intentional. He was hit by 57 pitches.
“Early in my career, I decided I never wanted to get out of shape,” Ripken told reporters late in his career. And it certainly proved to be the truth. The stories about injuries almost keeping him out of the lineup have taken on mythical proportions. But the fact is, he played in 162 or more games 10 times during his career, had three seasons in which a rainout limited the Orioles to 161 and had two seasons shortened by the 1994-95 strike.
“I think a lot of players when you play it every day, you get into a routine, it is not until you do it once where you know you can do it,” Ripken told ABC News’ George Will in 2001 after announcing his pending retirement at the end of the season. “Some players never get a chance to do it once. But once you do it, it doesn't seem so hard.”
The prodigy of a baseball family, Ripken’s father and uncle had both played minor league ball. And his brother, Billy, would be his teammate and double play partner in Baltimore for seven years.
After failing to make the majors, Cal Sr. became a minor league manager for the O’s at age 25, teaching not only his charges but also his two sons the Oriole Way. Cal Jr. was about as highly touted a prospect as they come. In reverence toward Cal Sr., they called Cal Jr., “Little Rip” despite eventually growing bigger and taller than his father.
Hall of Famer and future teammate to Cal Jr., Jim Palmer, could remember seeing “Little Rip” at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium as far back as three-years-old. Before signing with the team in 1978, a 17-year-old Ripken had a workout in which he battered Memorial Stadium’s left field bleachers. During his first spring training with the club in 1982, Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell wrote, the stroke “had been built with this park in mind from a very early age. The vets buzzed that day as though they’d seen the future and it was Cooperstown.”
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound “Little Rip” was called up in August of 1981 and played in 23 games, though he only started nine, often being used as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner or defensive replacement at third and short. He recorded just five hits – all singles – in 39 at-bats. The future face of the franchise would make his impact in 1982 and shed the “Little” tag for good. One-time Oriole third baseman Doug DeCinces, who was traded in January 1982 to make room for the young heir apparent to third, was quoted in the Post, “I’m just playing between two legends (i.e. Brooks Robinson and Ripken).”
After tearing up every league he’d been put in, including earning the MVP of the Puerto Rican winter league a month before reporting to camp, Ripken was ready. He hit a home run in his first game in 1982, a special moment because his father was Baltimore’s third base coach.
Ripken soon struggled, seeing his average dip to .123 by the end of April. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver gave him in three games off during the season’s first two months, letting the rookie catch his breath. Finally toward the end of May, Ripken was adjusting at the plate and once he’d found his stride, Weaver unleashed him on the American League. Starting with the Orioles 6-0 loss against Toronto on May 30th, the 21-year-old wouldn’t sit on the bench for an entire game again until after he turned 38.
“There was nothing to keep him from being a star in the Major Leagues,” Weaver later said. “That was inevitable.”
He’d end the season in 1982 by playing in 160 of the team’s 163 games, including the final 118. By September, Ripken established himself as the team’s shortstop – a position he would be credited later in his career with helping re-invent because of his size and power. He belted 28 home runs and knocked in 93. His efforts netted him the AL Rookie of the Year Award, beating out Kent Hrbek in Minnesota and Boggs in Boston.
While Weaver wouldn’t return in 1983, Ripken won the MVP Award that year while teaming with Palmer and Hall of Famer Eddie Murray to lead the Orioles to their first World Championship since 1970. In the World Series, the 37-year-old Palmer picked up a win while Murray provided two home runs against the Phillies.
Ripken’s consecutive innings streak ended in 1987, when his father Cal Sr., at that point manager of the Orioles, took him out in the eighth of a Sept. 14th blowout loss in Toronto. While current Rangers manager Ron Washington replaced Ripken at short, the future Hall of Famer was back in the field for the next game.
When the streak ended in Sept. 20, 1998 it was under Ripken’s terms. It was at home, and at first rookie Ryan Minor thought it was a prank, being told to play third instead of Cal Ripken Jr. Finally the fans and the visiting Yankees noticed and gave Ripken an ovation. Three years later, he would conclude his Hall of Fame career.
Ripken was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007.
“So many good things have happened to me in the game of baseball,” Ripken said. “When I do allow myself a chance to think about it, it's almost like a storybook career. You feel so blessed to have been able to compete this long.”
Trevor Hayes is the editorial production manager at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.