Cal Ripken Jr. broke a baseball record for longevity that few thought would ever be approached, and ended his 21-year career with the “unbreakable” record for consecutive games played.
Ripken was born in 1960 in Havre de Grace, Md., into a baseball family. He is the son of former Baltimore Orioles manager Cal Ripken, who was a former player turned baseball coach at the time of his son’s birth. Ripken Jr. got to spend as much time as possible with his father, traveling with him during the summers and being involved with the Orioles as much as possible.
Although he was a two-time high school letter winner in soccer, Ripken Jr. dreamed of being a major league baseball player since he was eight years old. After hitting .492 as a senior in high school on the way to a state title, he was drafted by the Orioles in 1978.
In a remarkable case of foreshadowing, Ripken played in the longest professional baseball game ever as a minor leaguer in a 33-inning affair between his Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox. Ripken played third base and stayed in the game all 33 innings. The aforementioned streak began in May of 1982 and did not end until 1998. Ripken followed his breakout 1982 season with an even better 1983, and in so doing set another record of sorts. He followed his Rookie of the Year award with The American League Most Valuable Player award the next season, hitting .318 with 27 home runs and 102 RBI. He was named to the All-Star Game for the first time in 1983, and he was named to the next 18 All-Star teams as well.
In the 1983 season, Ripken became a full-time shortstop, even though, at 6-4, he was unusually tall for that position. Ripken played in his first and only World Series in 1983. He batted only .167 with only one RBI, but the Orioles defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 4-1.
In 1987, Cal Ripken Sr. senior became manager of the Orioles and Ripken Jr. played for his dad for less than two years. Billy Ripken, brother to Cal Ripken Jr., was also on the team that year and Ripken Sr. became the first manager to write the names of two sons into the lineup.
Ripken played 8,243 consecutive innings of baseball from 1982 through 1997. That streak ended on Sept. 14, 1988 when Ripken Sr. took Ripken Jr. out of the blowout loss in the eighth inning and inserted Ron Washington.
In 1991, Ripken had his best hitting season with a .323 batting average, 34 home runs and 114 RBI, (the home runs and RBI totals were career highs). He won his second American League Most Valuable Player award that season (the only player ever to win the award while playing for a sub-.500 team), and was the MVP of the 1991 All-Star Game. He won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star game as well.
The Orioles’ former home, Memorial Stadium, hosted its last major league game Oct. 6, 1991, and Ripken was coincidentally the last Oriole to bat there, as he hit into a double play to end the last innings.
Ripken’s longevity came because he could hit for average but also because he could play his position better than most anyone else in the game. In 1990, he set the Major League Baseball record for fielding percentage at shortstop at .996, with just three errors in 680 chances. He led the American League in assists several times.
The 1998 game in which Ripken broke Gehrig’s record was attended by both President Bill Clinton and vice-president Al Gore. At the moment the game became official after the visiting California Angels’ fifth inning, the game was halted and Ripken was feted by a standing ovation that lasted more than 22 minutes. During the ovation, Ripken did an impromptu run around the outside of the stadium, high-fiving fans.
“Tonight I stand here, overwhelmed, as my name is linked with the great and courageous Lou Gehrig,” Ripken said in his speech that day. “I’m truly humbled to have our names spoken in the same breath.”
Ripken also broke the lesser-known world record of consecutive games played, a mark of 2,216 set by Sachio Kinugasa of Japan.
When the Orioles signed shortstop Mike Bordick from Oakland, Ripken was moved to third base permanently. In 1999, his 19th season, Ripken hit a career was .340, although he played in only 86 games due to an injury at the start of the year.
Ripken reached the 3,000-hit club in April of 2000. He retired at the end of the 2001 season, in the final game of the season at Camden Yards. The original schedule for 2001 had the Orioles finishing the season at Yankee Stadium, but the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedies forced postponement of a week’s worth of games that were tacked onto the end of the regular schedule, allowing the final game of the season to be played in Baltimore.
Ripken was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2007, and was a first ballot selection with the third highest voting total in baseball history behind pitcher Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. Among non-pitching players, his 98.53 voting percentage was the highest ever, and he was not named on only eight of the 545 ballot submitted.
After his playing career ended, Ripken Jr. dedicated his life to increasing the love of baseball from the youth level among underprivileged children. He created Ripken Baseball, that includes Ripken Management and Design, Youth Camps and Clinics, and Ripken Professional Baseball, which owns minor-league teams. Ripken Baseball also designs fields for youth play, college and professional teams.
Ripken writes an youth sports advice column for the Baltimore Sun. In 2007, Ripken was named the Special Sports Envoy for the U.S. State Department.