Cal Ripken:
Modern-Day Lindbergh or Media Myth?

Introduction

On Wednesday, September 6, 1995, at 9:40 p.m., Cal Ripken Jr. took off for the dugout and landed in a field of screams.

It may be the longest standing ovation in recorded history. Certainly, it's the longest I've ever heard. For 22 minutes and 15 seconds, the president of the United States, the vice president and 47,000 other fans saluted the Baltimore Orioles shortstop. They rose as one, midway through the fifth inning, when it became official that Ripken had played in 2,131 consecutive games. In so doing, he broke one of the seemingly most-unbreakable records in sports: the 2,130 consecutive games played three generations ago by "the pride of the Yankees," Iron Horse Lou Gehrig. Ripken emerged from the dugout three times to acknowledge the fans' cheers, but they refused to rein in their admiration for the gentle giant, who at 6-foot-4 is one of the tallest men to ever play shortstop in the majors. Not until he circled the field in an impromptu victory lap, slapping hands with strangers and hugging acquaintances and opponents alike, did the crowd allow the game to resume.

"If you didn't get a lump in your throat, or goose bumps, or a special chill watching Cal Ripken take a victory lap around the park," one columnist wrote (Kravitz, 1995), "I suggest you seek immediate counseling."

He was not the only one to rhapsodize about Ripken. In fact, a Nexis-Lexis search shows there were 10,211 newspaper or magazine stories written about him in 1995 alone. Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News named him their "Sportsman of the Year." It marked the fourth time SI featured Ripken on its cover in 1995. The Sporting News cover photo actually had him standing on a pedestal. The World Wide Web on the Internet computer network featured an even 100 pages mentioning Ripken, led by one prodigious paean that's had over 1,337 "hits" from other visitors. Capping the year, the ballplayer and a ghostwriter issued a slick, coffee table book called, "Ripken: Cal on Cal." Despite its narcissistic-sounding title, the $40 primer is as unpretentious as the prematurely grey man himself:

I felt a little embarrassed by all the attention I was getting, especially when the president and vice president came to the record-breaking game. ... Then to have them stop in and see me -- I felt honored beyond comprehension. ...

The president talked to me about the importance of the streak and how people were now talking about their perfect attendance at work. He said I provided a good example. That really made me feel good.

While I didn't set out to be a role model, I understand athletes are in a position to influence people. I always thought it was just as easy to watch yourself and try to be positive as it was to ignore the situation (Ripken, 1995, p. 105).

Other writers took note of his work ethic and uncommon willingness to be counted on. One called him, "a symbol of all that is good and pure and old-fashioned about baseball" (Vancheri, 1995). Another said Ripken's record was "a symbolic shot in the jock to remind Americans of their fabled basic values: hard work, discipline, pride in doing the job" (Kroll, 1995). In fact, 107 stories in 1995 mentioned Ripken in the same breath with some form of the word, "symbol." Among them was a Sept. 5 story that quoted the reluctant hero as saying, "I am not a symbol or an example of anything. I don't represent the game or the city" (Pennington, 1995a).

When writers weren't casting Ripken as a symbol, they often referred to his saga in terms of myth. In fact, there were 33 stories drawing the connection between Ripken and some form of the word, "myth." One story rendered "mythic status" on his consecutive games string (Pennington, 1995b), another spoke of his "magical mixture of reality and myth" (Larue, 1995), and a third quoted Cal himself: "The myth is that everyone assumes I want to beat Gehrig. All I ever wanted was to be known as a guy you could depend on" (Cook, 1995).

Myth is defined as "the logical alternative to history," by George Lipsitz in his book "Time Passages." Lipsitz goes on to say myth is "a form of story-telling that goes beyond verifiable evidence to providing unifying symbols and rituals that enable people to interpret common experiences." This definition goes far in explaining the surfeit of stories about Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995. Many of them explicitly contrasted Ripken's steady march toward the record with the unsettling historical events of the past year, both inside and outside of baseball. They repeatedly referred to the baseball strike, which shortened each of the last two seasons and forced the first cancellation of a World Series, and the sordid O.J. Simpson trial, where the former football star was accused of killing his ex-wife and an acquaintance of hers.

Among the "unifying symbols and rituals" repeatedly ascribed to Ripken were a strong work ethic, a willingness to put aside personal pains and pride for the good of the team (i.e. society), devotion to his wife and children, devotion to his parents and siblings, his consistency at "good habits" such as pre-game stretching and off-season exercising, his willingness to continue volunteering his time (e.g. signing autographs for free), and his refusal to let all the attention "go to his head." In summary, the media portrayed Ripken as an antidote for all that was wrong with baseball -- which has long served as a metaphor for America itself -- and as a paragon for any good member of American society, no matter what age.

Two other themes that resonated in many of the Cal Ripken stories, as they do throughout American Studies, were those of time and place. As the only American team sport whose length is not governed by the clock, baseball is often lauded for its "timeless" qualities. Many writers extended that concept by referring to Ripken's record as "one for the ages" (e.g., Steadman, 1995). At a time when baseball had devolved from the modern era of free agency to the postmodern debacle of a labor dispute between millionaire players and billionaire owners, Cal Ripken was a throwback to baseball's romantic era. Like Lou Gehrig, who was graduated from Columbia University before playing his entire career for the Yankees, Ripken was a hometown boy made good. He was born and raised in Aberdeen, Md., grew up around the Orioles' minor league teams that his father coached, and has played for Baltimore ever since winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1982. (I've only recently forgiven him for narrowly beating out Kent Hrbek, another big guy who played his entire career for his -- and my -- hometown team, the Minnesota Twins. But alas, Hrbek was so reckless and rollicking that he seldom played 20 games in a row, let alone 2,000+. He retired a year ago, while Ripken rolls on. A final ironic connection between them is that Hrbek's father died of ALS, which is commonly called "Lou Gehrig's Disease" because it's the affliction that ended Gehrig's consecutive games string -- and soon, his life.)

Another time and place element of the Ripken myth is that he broke the record on his home field, Oriole Park at Candem Yards, which is also a throwback to the romantic era with its steel grid work, natural grass, working railroad depot and, of course, the brick warehouse behind right field. All eyes, including Ripken's, turned to the warehouse in the middle of the fifth inning Sept. 6, to watch the number "1" banner unfurl at the end of the record-tracking total of 2131. Ripken transcended space and made the game stand still one other time that night when he hit his third home run in as many games. A home run is unlike any other play in American sports, because it not only suspends competition, it renders all of the fielders helpless. It is the ultimate "hit-'em-where-they-ain't" play. In the way the ball travels on an arch and lands in a different world, a home run is not unlike a trans-Atlantic flight...

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