You become accustomed to absurdity when loving, following and writing about a game. You see and hear it from those who love and follow it, those who play it, those who manage or administer it, and those who write about it. But then comes a remark that should win the ultimate Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary.
I saw it in the context of late-spring observations on the health of certain Yankees, aboard a Facebook baseball group to which I belong, mindful that for almost three years The New England Journal of Medicine could be the Yankee yearbook. I saw concurrent references to Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr., Hall of Famers both, one setting the consecutive games played streak the other broke.
Both Gehrig and Ripken played through assorted injuries to reach their milestones, perhaps foolishly. Gehrig ended his streak only under orders from the insidious disease that would kill him shy of two years after removing himself from the Yankee lineup. Ripken was able to play 501 consecutive games more following the night he passed Gehrig and 870 more games total before retiring with 3,001 major league games played.
Aboard that group, I couldn’t resist noting Gehrig’s plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park still calls him “a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time.” Just as it did when it was first erected in the old Yankee Stadium on the Fourth of July in 1941.
The night Ripken said “not quite,” one of Gehrig’s Yankee teammates was in Camden Yards to see it happen. “Well,” said Joe DiMaggio to Ripken and the crowd after the game ended, “that goes to prove even the greatest records are made to be broken. And . . . wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”
Another group member thought not. “I still wish Cal would have stopped at 2130,” he wrote. “He would have been even more of a media darling if he said something along the lines of the memory of the man and the streak is too great to be broken therefore I am content to tie it and to hopefully be mentioned in the same breath as he in future conversation.”
Have I finally seen everything?
Well, I know better. But for abject absurdity if not sheer foolishness, that gets as close as possible. It only begins with Ripken having been a media target as much as a media darling the closer he got to meeting and passing Gehrig. For every one that marveled at his endurance, there was another who marveled that the Orioles put up with his “selfishness,” with putting his potential place in baseball history ahead of the team’s good.
My first response in the space of the group itself was to suggest such thinking as wishing Ripken stopped equal to Gehrig made it a wonder that any record would be broken. I remembered Henry Aaron saying, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth, I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.”
I also wondered whether Ruth himself would have said, in 1919, “Gee, I think I’ll stop at 27 [home runs] because I don’t want to ruin Ned Williamson’s memory.” (Ruth’s 29 homers that year broke Williamson’s 1884 single-season record.) I didn’t dare add that I was pretty sure Pete Rose in 1985 didn’t think for a single minute, “Jeez, I can’t do this to Ty Cobb, can I?” before slashing his Tying and passing career base hits.
“Guess I should have described myself as a hopeless romantic instead of an idealist but i really do wish that was the way it went down,” said the group member in question who thinks and wishes Ripken had stopped at 2,130. “Everyone would have known Cal could have easily surpassed Gehrig and I can’t foresee anybody breaking or even coming close to 2130 again. Your point though is certainly well taken.”
What manner of “hopeless romantic” goes ballistic at the mere idea of anyone challenging Ruth’s former single-season home run record in 1961? Which one has kittens over the likelihood of plainspoken, charisma-challenged Roger Maris and not glib, charisma-loaded Mickey Mantle breaking it?
Idealists don’t send aspiring record breakers hate mail. Hopeless romantics don’t write venomous newspaper columns or throw things at them. Then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t hopelessly romantic, he was cynically selfish—as a one-time Ruth ghostwriter and permanent Ruth acolyte—demanding separation between 154-game and 162-game seasons the better to be damn sure ruthsrecord (yes, they said it that way then) couldn’t really be erased.
(P.S. You asked for it. Maris needed five fewer plate appearances to hit 61 in ’61 than Ruth did to hit 60 in 1927. If you re-set Maris’s clock to start his season the game in which he hit his first homer of ’61, it took him 152 games to hit 61. Take that, Edsel Frick.)
I wondered further about such “idealists” as the brain-dead and the racists (who are their own kind of brain dead) threatening Aaron every step of the way as he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list.
I resisted the temptation to ask my fellow group member if he was one of those ready to wear black arm bands when Sandy Koufax smashed two of Bob Feller’s records in one 1965, Feller’s major league single-season strikeout record and his career record three no-hitters. (Koufax really hit Feller where it hurt, too: his fourth no-hitter proved that practise makes perfect.)
Then I reminded myself no milestone passer or record breaker could possibly erase the memory or the legacy of the one whose milestone he passed or record he broke. I learned that early from Ted Williams himself, a man who was nothing if not obsessed with his own legacy. “The other day,” Williams said at his own Hall of Fame induction, “Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.”
Williams didn’t think Mays diminished him. Teddy Ballgame, of course, probably believed nobody could diminish him. While whacking balls during batting practise he was once heard to say, “Jesus H. Christ Himself couldn’t get me out!”
Was Ruth diminished by Maris and Aaron? Was Feller diminished by Koufax? Was Cobb diminished by Rose? Was Walter Johnson diminished by Nolan Ryan breaking his lifetime major league strikeout record? Was Gehrig really diminished by Ripken?
DiMaggio didn’t think so. “He’s a one in a million ballplayer, who came along to break [Gehrig’s] record,” the Yankee Clipper told that cheering Camden Yards throng, “and my congratulations to you, Cal, you certainly deserve this lasting tribute.”
On the silver anniversary of the night he passed Gehrig (and whacked a home run while he was at it), I reminded anyone who cared to read it that Ripken didn’t (and doesn’t) live by 2,131 alone. He’s the arguable greatest all-around shortstop who ever played the game. Says who? Says 3,000+ hits and 400+ home runs (the only such middle infielder to do both) and +181 fielding runs (third only behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith), says who.
You should be half afraid to ask whether Casey Stengel managing five consecutive World Series winners diminished the John McGraw who’d once managed a mere four. Or whether Tom Seaver striking out a record ten straight to consummate a nineteen-strikeout game diminished the Steve Carlton who’d struck out nineteen in a game previously without ten straight punchouts to finish.
Carlton wasn’t accused of diminishing the Koufax who struck eighteen out in a game twice or the Feller who did it once.
Tomorrow is Opening Day. The Show will be back and with a full season to come, even. Last year’s pan-damn-ically shortened, irregular season will recede a little further into the ranks of the aberrations. There may be a few milestones reached and passed this year, if not exactly all-time records of all-time idols.
Miguel Cabrera needs a mere 134 hits and thirteen home runs to become the only player who ever reached 3,000 lifetime hits and 500 lifetime home runs in the same season. At least nobody—whether fan group member or professional writer—can accuse Cabrera diminishing someone else’s achievement if he makes both.
Nobody can predict, of course. The likelihood isn’t that great, either, but imagine if the aging Cabrera’s thirteenth home run this year becomes his 3,000th hit, somehow. He’d be only the third man in Show history to do it. Hands up to anyone foolish enough to think he shouldn’t even think about trying to go long for 3,000 because it might “diminish” the only two men whose 3,000th hits were bombs—Derek Jeter (who did it first, in 2011) and Alex Rodriguez (who did it in 2015).
At September 2019’s end, just about, Justin Verlander struck Kole Calhoun out twice in a game. The first time nailed Verlander’s 3,000th career strikeout, the second time his 300th strikeout of that season. No pitcher ever delivered that trick before. The only thing that diminished Verlander even slightly was what happened after he punched Calhoun out for 3,000: Andrelton Simmons hit the pitch immediately following the punchout over the center field fence.
Entering 2021 Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw have over 2,500 lifetime strikeouts each. Suppose one of them endures long enough that his 3,000th strikeout-to-be might also become his 300th strikeout of the season in question. Would it really diminish Verlander if one of them pulls it off? Should he just try throwing grounders the rest of the way? Should his manager relieve him on the spot? The better not to soil Verlander’s glory?
God help Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., or Christian Yelich if any of them should stand on the threshold of breaking Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Some bonehead somewhere is liable to suggest he should take a dive for game 57 on the grounds that it’s too great a record to be broken and, by the way, he shouldn’t ought to want to diminish DiMaggio’s memory.
Both Ripken and myself will probably be in the Elysian Fields before somebody else breaks Ripken’s streak, if somebody else actually does. But I’ll be there watching when Ripken and Gehrig holler down to the man, “Way to go, kiddo!” They won’t be screaming bloody murder with demands not to be diminished.
When Johnny Bench broke Yogi Berra’s record for lifetime home runs as a catcher, Berra wired him: “I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.” Funny how Bench didn’t exactly diminish Berra. Funny how Berra didn’t exactly feel diminished. Funny, too, how nobody who’s since passed Bench —for the record, they’re Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza—diminished Yogi, either.
The only one diminished by suggesting that breaking venerated records diminishes the original record setter is the one making the suggestion in the first place.