When Cal Ripken Jr. Became a God, Broke the Unbreakable Record

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 2, 2015

Baltimore Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. waves to the crowd as the sign in centerfield reads 2,131, signifying Ripken had broken Lou Gehrig's record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, at Camden Yards in Baltimore, in this Sept. 6, 1995 photo.  (AP Photo/Denis Paquin)
DENIS PAQUIN/Associated Press

Lou Gehrig's record stood for a half-century, and it felt like it had been there forever.

Cal Ripken Jr.'s record has stood for 20 years, and it feels like...wait, has it really been 20 years since that fabulous night when he passed Gehrig by playing in his 2,131st consecutive game?

"It seems like yesterday in one way," Ripken said. "And then there's the realization that it's been 20 years."

Twenty years. It's a lifetime for the guy who might be the best shortstop in baseball today. Carlos Correa was born two weeks after the game that changed Ripken from a great player headed to the Hall of Fame into a legend with a nickname.

When Ernie Johnson says "Iron Man" on those TBS baseball telecasts, we all know who he's talking about. We all remember.

It's about that streak. It's about that night—that magical night that lives on in history.

"There's never been another game like it," Rex Hudler said. "And there'll never be another game like it."

Hudler was the starting second baseman for the California Angels that night at Camden Yards. He went 0-for-2 with a strikeout, before Spike Owen pinch hit for him.

"By far the greatest moment in my career," he said. "And it had nothing to do with me."

It truly was a game like no other ever played. And this Sunday, September 6, 2015, will mark the 20-year anniversary.

* * *

Baseball has plenty of records, but some always stand out. Part of the reason is the accomplishment itself, but who has held them is just as important. And just as 60 home runs always meant Babe Ruth and a 56-game hitting streak always meant Joe DiMaggio, 2,130 consecutive games played always meant Gehrig.

Uncredited/Associated Press

It was one of the game's unbreakable records, and with good reason. For 40 years after Gehrig's career ended because of the disease that would eventually carry his name, no one came within 900 games of catching him. Steve Garvey had the longest streak since Gehrig, and when it ended at 1,207 games in 1983, Garvey was still five-and-a-half years away from the record.

The 1983 season was Ripken's second full year in the big leagues, and the first in which he played all 162 games. It was also the year he won his only World Series and the first of his two American League Most Valuable Player awards.

By the time he won the MVP again in 1991, Ripken was within 500 games of catching Gehrig, and the Iron Man legacy was building. At that point, though, it was still secondary to his reputation as one of MLB's best players.

Sometime around 1995, and maybe exactly on that magical night of Sept. 6, the dynamic flipped. Fans still celebrated Ripken for the way he played the game, but more than anything they remembered him as the guy who never missed a game.

"I said a long time ago that to be remembered at all is pretty special," he said.

He'll be remembered for ages, and his record will be, too.

Ripken's streak ended in 1998 at 2,632 games, which, at 162 games per season, takes a little more than 16 years. As of last week, only one player (Manny Machado of Ripken's Orioles) had played in every game this year. Machado missed the final 44 games of 2014, so his streak doesn't go back any farther than that.

* * *

To understand what Ripken's streak meant in 1995, you need to go back to that year and remember it began with the lockout and the ugly specter of replacement players in spring training camps. Baseball was still trying to overcome the strike and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

Baseball needed something to celebrate. Baseball needed Cal Ripken chasing down Lou Gehrig.

Ripken was 122 games shy of breaking the record when the strike hit in '94, and the idea of the streak ending in a replacement game bothered people almost as much as replacement games being played at all. The lockout ended, and when real spring training began, Ripken was a little caught off guard when people began asking about the streak.

"I didn't expect anything," he said. "Hearing the interest on the first day of spring training, that was my first indicator."

The interest kept building. John Maroon, in his first year as the Orioles public relations director (and still Ripken's PR man today), suggested Ripken set aside time before the first game of every series to talk to local reporters in each town. Ripken insisted it be done early, and outside of the clubhouse, to avoid creating a distraction for his teammates.

Meanwhile, the Orioles began to plan for Sept. 6.

The consecutive-games record is different, because barring a rainout, everyone knew what day Ripken would pass Gehrig. You can't plan for the exact day a home run record will fall or when a player will get to 3,000 hits, but this time we all knew Sept. 6 would be Ripken Day.

That meant special guests, like President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and even Joe DiMaggio. It meant writers from across the country, in numbers resembling an All-Star Game or World Series.

Gehrig and DiMaggio together in 1936
Gehrig and DiMaggio together in 1936Associated Press/Associated Press

It meant ESPN, then in just its sixth year of carrying major league games, could arrange to carry the game nationally.

The Orioles had worked with MLB to make sure their 122nd game in 1995 would be a home game, so that Ripken could pass Gehrig at Camden Yards. MLB cooperated, but it would be the last game of a homestand—meaning even one rainout that wasn't made up in time could ruin the plans. Game 123 on that year's schedule would be in Cleveland.

"Fortunately, the Indians were running away with their division," Maroon remembered. "The Indians called the Orioles and said if you need us to move that [123rd] game to Baltimore, we'll do it."

Even more fortunately, the Orioles got the first 121 games in without trouble. The record game would go off on schedule, Sept. 6 against the Angels.

As long as Ripken didn't miss a game before then.

* * *

He hadn't missed one in 13 years, of course. He had stayed remarkably healthy, and he had incredible pain tolerance, but there was always the chance of a pitch that would break a bone or a slide into second base that would mess up an ankle or a knee.

Or something else.

"I'd go in the clubhouse, and he'd be wrestling with guys," Maroon said. "I'd be like, 'What are you doing?'"

But Ripken wasn't going to change the way he was. He was going to act the way he always had.

"Anything could happen," he said. "Anything could have happened all those years."

Nothing bad did happen, and the attention kept building. To use the phrase that became familiar at the time, everyone could relate to a guy who just kept going to work every day.

Ripken kept playing, and while 1995 wasn't one of his best seasons, his numbers were close to being in line with what he did throughout his career. He had a .262 average and 33 doubles in a season that was shortened to 144 games because of the spring lockout.

The Orioles were building the team that would make the playoffs in 1996 and 1997, but in 1995 they were basically a .500 team. By August, while Ripken was still focusing on the games each day, the organization was focused on Sept. 6.

* * *

There were about a half-dozen Orioles staffers heavily involved in the planning, and as a group they came up with the idea of putting the numbers on the warehouse behind right field. They would start sometime in August, and as soon as each game became official, the number would change to reflect Ripken's streak, finally getting to 2,130 on Sept. 5.

"When we came up with the idea [of the numbers], we weren't sure it was that good," Maroon said. "Our music guy came up with the John Tesh music that they played as the number changed. The first time we ran the idea past Cal, he said, 'That sounds stupid.'

"Once he saw it, he said, 'That's cool.'"

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 5:  Cal Ripken, Jr., of the Baltimore Orioles hits a home run in the sixth inning of Baltimore's 05 September game against the California Angels at Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Ripken has now tied Lou Gehrig's record
DAVID AKE/Getty Images

The music would start after the top of the fifth inning if the Orioles led and after the bottom of the fifth if they didn't. Only then was it an official game, so the decision was made to change the number then.

"I got pretty emotional the first time," Ripken said. "I started to reflect on how I got there and who had helped me along the way. There was a realization that something special was going to happen.

"The music had something to do with it. The music felt really right."

It was cool, and it was the image that has lived on. That, and the 22-minute impromptu celebration the night Ripken passed Gehrig.

That day, after all of the planning and all of the crossed fingers hoping that a rainout or an injury wouldn't ruin everything, Ripken came to Camden Yards the way he always had.

The only issue was he was sick.

* * *

Ripken plays it down now, saying he just had a slight fever that he blamed on the accumulation of all of the effort, and on a lack of sleep.

"I was exhausted," he said. "I was giving more and more to the process. I was staying up at night signing balls, because it was the only time I had."

He had another autograph to sign at the ballpark, when Clinton and Gore came to the Orioles clubhouse before the game.

WILFREDO LEE/Associated Press

"He was signing for the president, and Cal was sweating like a pig," Maroon said. "Everyone thought he was nervous. No, he was sick."

There was no question that he was going to play, and Ripken overcame the illness and hit a fourth-inning home run that gave the Orioles a 3-1 lead. Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina set the Angels down 1-2-3 in the fifth, and one last time, the music played and the number changed—from 2,130 and a tie with Gehrig to 2,131 and a place in history.

The Orioles hadn't planned anything any more dramatic than that, but what happened then lives on in memory. The fans were cheering, both teams were cheering, and on ESPN, Chris Berman and Buck Martinez were letting us all listen in.

"Brooks [Robinson] was sitting between us," Martinez said. "We all had tears in our eyes. We couldn't talk. And for Boomer [Berman] not to talk, that's saying something.

"Boomer was great that night. He takes a lot of heat, but he recognizes moment. You couldn't have outdone those pictures."

Ripken, conscious as always of the game and the other players, acknowledged the crowd but wanted the game to go on. It took teammates Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla to push him out of the dugout, beginning the trip around the warning track that remains etched in memory.

"That turned out to be one of the best human moments," Ripken said. "It became quite intimate. And about three-quarters of the way around, I started thinking that I don't care if this game ever starts again."

ROBERTO BOREA/Associated Press

It didn't start again for 22 minutes, but no one was complaining. Even the Angels, who were in the middle of a pennant race that would end with their losing a one-game playoff to the Seattle Mariners, didn't complain.

"That night, our pennant race didn't matter," Hudler said. "That whole thing revolved around the greatest streak that would never be broken."

* * *

Hudler and Ripken had a little history themselves. They were drafted the same year, in 1978, and Hudler never let Ripken forget that he was a first-rounder (by the New York Yankees) and that Ripken lasted until the second round.

They were teammates, briefly, in 1986 with the Orioles. And for several years leading up to 1995, Hudler had been bothering Ripken about getting an autographed bat for his collection.

On Sept. 6, though, Hudler was much more concerned with getting one of the specially designed baseballs used for that game, with orange laces and Ripken's No. 8. But home-plate umpire Larry Barnett said he could only keep one if he caught the final out of an inning.

Sure enough, moments after Ripken's run around the park, Ripken batted with two out in the bottom of the fifth and hit a blooper that Hudler could catch for the third out.

"I was running, and the ball was in slow motion," Hudler said. "I had to dive to get it, but to me that was a five-carat diamond. I was going to catch it, and when I did, I held it up and shook it. The fans booed because they thought I was trying to show Cal up, but all I wanted was that ball. I went right to the clubhouse and put it in my bag."

And when the game ended, an Orioles batboy came to the Angels clubhouse with Ripken's bat.

"To Hud," it read. "I know we go back a long way, but right now I feel like you feel when you strike out with the bases loaded—visibly shaken. Cal Ripken."

"I don't know how many bats he signed, but that was special," Hudler said. "What a classy, thoughtful, witty human being the Iron Man was."

* * *

What an incredible night that was. Twenty years later, none of us who saw it will ever forget it, even those of us who watched on television.

"It was one of those perfect storms," Maroon said. "There was no social media, thank goodness. No Facebook pictures. Everyone was just glued to the scene, watching."

Twenty years later, we can still see it, and we can still feel it.

"It was super cool," Ripken said.

Yes, it was.

 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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