Cal Ripken’s historic consecutivegames streak took its toll.
The world is an unreliable place. Friends let you down, people you love change, and your boss makes you work the weekend. You cannot count on many things, but one of them is baseball. Seven months of the year, every year, baseball begs to join you. It can be background noise on May afternoons or a template for forensic study on September nights. It can be a companion in a lonely apartment or cause for frenzied communion inside an emerald cathedral. It can be distraction or obsession. The game’s central appeal lies in its ubiquity. Baseball is always there for you.
It figures, then, that the sport’s most revered figures are the men who are always there for baseball. In his new book, “The Streak: Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken and Baseball’s Most Historic Record,” longtime Baltimore sportswriter John Eisenberg explores the motivations, travails and triumphs of Ripken and Gehrig, the only two men to appear in 2,000 consecutive major league baseball games. The book uses historical study and new reporting to explain how Gehrig and Ripken did it and why it mattered. It tackles the allure of human endurance and the pitfalls of fame, but it is mostly a baseball book for baseball fans. It succeeds as both a thorough accounting and a love note to the game.
“The Streak” opens with Ripken circling Camden Yards on the night he played in his 2,131st consecutive game, which nudged him past Gehrig as the sport’s all-time Iron Man. Eisenberg unspools the stories of Ripken and Gehrig in alternating chapters, interrupted by inter-chapters on themes, titled “Ironmen.” We learn how Ripken developed an intense feeling of responsibility to play from his father, the baseball lifer Cal Sr. We see how Gehrig, born in poverty to a domineering German mother, started with a deep work ethic and came to embrace the fame associated with his streak.
Eisenberg dives into the evolution of the public’s view of consecutive-game streaks, from ignorance in the earliest days through fixation during Ripken’s run. The prose is straightforward, and the details are rich.
The depth of his research about Gehrig and his precursors delights. We learn the story of Everett Scott, who to play in his 971st straight game endured a journey from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Chicago that feels incomprehensible today. A blown cylinder head caused his train to break down; he banged on a farmhouse door so he could use the phone; a garage manager drove him to South Bend, Ind., where he caught a trolley to Gary and then a cab to Chicago. He arrived at the ballpark in the seventh inning, just in time to continue the streak.
As Eisenberg shows, the streaks were in many ways contrivances. One early streak continued only when a sportswriter hustled from the press box to the dugout to inform a manager that his player’s streak was about to end. When Gehrig had played 1,060 straight games, a court date involving his mother forced him away from the park. The Yankees’ owner, Jacob Ruppert, canceled the game on account of threatening weather and rescheduled it as part of a doubleheader; no rain ever fell. At the end of his streak, Gehrig routinely The New York Yankees’ Lou Gehrig, above left, and the Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken Jr. are the only two players to have appeared in 2,000 consecutive major league baseball games. took one at-bat and then exited because of an injury, just to keep his streak alive.
But the toll on the men, physical and psychic, was real. Gehrig’s streak caused a public fissure between him and Babe Ruth, who chided Gehrig for caring too much about a streak that only took years off his career. Gehrig responded by telling an interviewer that Honus Wagner — not Ruth — was the best player he’d ever seen, in part for “doing a grand job without any thought of himself.” The squabble, as Eisenberg writes, made continuing his streak “personal” for Gehrig.
When Ripken played poorly, the streak made him a target. Fans and reporters labeled him selfish, too concerned about the streak to rest and, presumably, improve his performance. Ripken tells Eisenberg that manager Frank Robinson informed him years later that he considered ending Ripken’s streak in 1990, during a wicked slump. Ripken states he remembers games 1,300 through 1,800 as uniformly “negative.” Billy Williams, who compiled the National League’s longest streak for the Cubs, ultimately expressed his regret of the pursuit.
Eisenberg provides enough detail to allow the reader to arrive at insights. Among them: Technology has advanced so much, and so quickly, that Ripken’s era feels more similar to Gehrig’s time than baseball today. Newspapers remained the primary medium through which fans consumed coverage. Eisenberg notes the absence of cellphones as Ripken circled the Camden Yards field — try to imagine such a moment lived entirely through human eyes instead of rectangular screens, fans lunging for handshakes rather than snapping selfies.
Some larger questions are left uncultivated. Eisenberg never grapples with the idea that the consecutive-game streaks boiled down to management promoting relentless work for no extra benefits, a theme especially worthy of exploration given Ripken’s role as a savior after the 1994 strike and canceled World Series.
But that quibble may be asking the book to be something it never strives for. Eisenberg details Ripken’s achievement without over-reliance on celebrating Ripken for personifying an everyman ethos, the go-to cliche to describe the streak’s attraction. Instead, he focuses on a more subtle and powerful notion, connected to the heart of baseball’s central appeal.
“Indelible moments are not baseball’s currency,” Eisenberg writes near the book’s conclusion. “This is a sport that rewards consistency and perseverance. Its truths crystalize gradually rather than immediately, over weeks, over months, sometimes even over years. Ripken’s record was a reflection of that subtle sensibility, its value becoming evident almost imperceptibly, inning by inning, game by game, year by year. He delivered indelible moments, none more enduring than the night he passed Gehrig, but what mattered, what constituted the very essence of baseball, was his consistent presence, his dependability, the simple fact that he was there, always there.”
For baseball to persist, somebody has to play. “The Streak” is a worthy study of those who played with more reliability than any others.
THE STREAK Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken Jr., and Baseball’s Most Historic Record