Cal Rip­ken’s his­toric con­sec­u­tiveg­ames streak took its toll.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY ADAM KIL­GORE Adam Kil­gore is a na­tional sports re­porter at The Wash­ing­ton Post, where he cov­ered the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als from 2010 through 2014.

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.



By John Eisen­berg Houghton Mif­flin Har­court. 299 pp. $26

THE STREAK Lou Gehrig, Cal Rip­ken Jr., and Base­ball’s Most His­toric Record

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