Cal Ripken

September 6th is the day when Cal Ripken is expected to break what was long viewed as the most unbreakable record in sports (except for perhaps Joe Dimaggio’s 56 game hitting streak) — Lou Gehrig’s 2130 consecutive games played. The Baltimore Orioles shortstop is not close to Gehrig’s batting, runs driven in and home runs statistics, but he has the same clean, rigorous, quiet behavior that the Yankee slugger epitomized.

In recent weeks, the sports pages have been replete with commentary about the respective Streaks. A few writers, notably Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times, has urged Ripken to take a day off just before reaching 2130 as “an act of conscience” that will counter baseball’s swaggering image.

Other writers have been content to let Gehrig’s Streak become history, but they cannot resist trying to downgrade Gehrig or Ripken at the expense of either player. Essayist Florence King took Ripken’s side in a Times op-ed article, calling the 35 year old Oriole — “the real Iron Horse.” Cal, she says, has already played more innings because he has played more full nine-inning games than Gehrig did and he plays a more wearing position at shortstop than Big Lou played at first base.

For his part, Gehrig played hurt many more times than did the seemingly injury-resistant Ripken. Not broken fingers, not severe bouts of lumbago, not concussions (players did not have padded caps then to protect against beanings) stopped this tough New York Yankee. Also teams played fewer games per season than they do now.

But why engage in zero-sum games with these two great players! The only real difference in their consecutive game records is that Lou Gehrig was neurologically coming apart in his last playing days, before he took himself out, and then, learned from the Mayo Clinic that he had the fatal disease which bears his name. He died at the age of 37, two years after the famous farewell ceremony at Yankee Stadium in 1939 when, with Babe Ruth at his side, he called himself “the luckiest man” in the world.

At age 35, with two or three years more to his career, Ripken may extend his Streak to 2500 games. Gehrig never had that chance. Tragedy took it away from him in the form of a disease that still has no cure.

So, in a typically heads up manner, the Orioles major owner, Peter Angelos, is arranging for 200 special seats to be sold for $5000 each on September 6th. The proceeds will go toward enlarging the research at Johns Hopkins University Medical School on Lou Gehrig’s disease which still afflicts thousands of Americans every year.

Lou Gehrig was my boyhood’s premier sports hero. Although I never saw him play, (My Yankee fandom started in the 1941 World Series), articles and books on him enthralled me more than a larger literature on Babe Ruth and other superstars.

What impressed me about Gehrig was not just his legendary stamina, but also his sheer determination to excel at first base though he knew he was not a natural defensive athlete. Far from it, he began as a clumsy, flat-footed fielder and became proficient by endless practice.

Gehrig amassed his remarkable statistics as a quiet, humble and very self-controlled man, but a man of strong pride and deep sensitivity. He was a great clutch hitter who did not brag or bluster on or off the field. He had, in a word, character under pressure.

As he literally disintegrated in the last two years of his life, he kept busy as a director of youth services of New York City — a position offered him by the Mayor of a very appreciative metropolis.

All this is partly why, as Cal Ripken deservedly overtakes and surpasses the Yankee’s consecutive-games achievement, Gehrig’s record will still stand forever. For that figure of 2130 straight games was not just built on numbers; it rose out of deep pain and was cut short by a hidden disease that turned into tragic fatality.

Cal Ripken has said that he won’t talk about Gehrig until he either breaks or fails to break the Streak. It looks like Cal will be the stamina champion very soon. His choice of words should extend both athletes’ place in baseball history.

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