Diminishing the one whose record you break?

If Joe DiMaggio didn’t think Cal Ripken, Jr. diminished Lou Gehrig, neither should anyone else. Unfortunately . . .

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.

Minor subterfuge

2019-09-27 MikeMinor

Mike Minor nailed his 200th strikeout with a little sneaky help from his friends Thursday night.

Let me put it right on the table for you. What the Rangers did Thursday in a bid to fatten Mike Minor’s shot at 200 strikeouts on the season isn’t exactly the first time someone’s resorted to a little subterfuge in order to enable a particular milestone. And if you still believe that boys will be boys, it won’t be the last, either.

So the Red Sox are a little p.o.ed over Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzman charging Chris Owings’s one-out popup then pulling his mitt back to let the ball hit the foul grass in the ninth? The Rangers weren’t exactly thrilled at the Red Sox swinging on first pitches in the eighth, either.

“Mike Minor’s 200th strikeout should have a big asterisk. That was bush. Chasing a milestone that way is unprofessional,” fumed Boston Globe writer Pete Abraham in a tweet. “Ask me if I care, Pete,” Minor fumed back.

“I didn’t love the idea that we dropped the popup at the end,” said Rangers manager Chris Woodward to reporters after Minor nailed number 200 and, while they were at it, won the game 7-5. “But on the other side of that, they swung at three pitches in a row in the eighth inning down by two. If they have any beef with that — obviously I’m pretty sure [Red Sox manager Alex] Cora did — they chose to not try and win the game as well. They were trying to keep him from striking a guy out.”

The very nerve of the Red Sox. Trying to keep a pitcher from striking them out. What’ll they think of next? Their pitchers trying to keep hitters from hitting?

Good thing Minor wasn’t going for a no-hitter and the Rangers didn’t put the shifts onto the final Red Sox batters. The Red Sox might have been ornery enough to look at all that yummy open expanse gifted them, decided, “You’re stupid enough to give us that much room to hit, we’re not going to look a gift horse’s ass in the mouth,” and whacked a grounder or two into that gifted meadow.

But then Cora had something to say about the Guzman play. “I’m just happy our guys are playing the game the right way,” he told reporters himself. “We’re playing hard until the end. It’s been two weeks we’ve been eliminated, but we’ve been going at it the right way. That’s all I ask. I don’t manage the Rangers.”

I don’t want to be the wise guy, here, but stuff such as Guzman did to help his mate keep a shot at a milestone alive goes on more often than you think. Actual or alleged.

One of baseball’s oldest legends is the 1910 race to the American League batting title between Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. The legend included Cobb sitting out the last two games to protect his average and the St. Louis Browns willing to give Lajoie, then with the Indians, his hits by hook, crook, and anything else they could get away with.

The Browns and the Tribe played a season-ending doubleheader while Cobb sat idle. Browns manager Jack O’Connor ordered his rookie third baseman Red Corriden to play on or at the edge of the outfield grass. Lajoie went 8-for-8 in the twin bill to win the title technically. American League president Ban Johnson declared Cobb the batting title winner after the shenanigans were taken to him.

The Chalmers Automobile Company, which awarded a car to the batting champion in those years, gave Cobb and Lajoie a new car each, pretty much deciding they were tied. Then, they changed the award the following season, giving the car to the league’s most valuable player, not the batting champion.

And O’Connor and his coach Harry Howell were banned from baseball for life over the scandal. (Lajoie’s ninth plate appearance of the day resulted in him reaching on an error; Howell tried to bribe the official scorer into changing the ruling to a base hit, but the scorer declined.)

Decades later, Denny McLain had his 31st win of 1968 in the bag when he decided he’d help Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle secure the last milestone he wanted in his career, retiring past Jimmie Foxx on baseball’s all-time home run list. Mantle was already at 534, tied with Foxx and in third place on the list.

When Tiger catcher Bill Freehan greeted Mantle checking in at the plate, with one out in the top of the eighth, Freehan told Mantle he’d be told what was coming because McLain really wanted him to do it. Sure enough, Mantle got one where he wanted it and sent it into the upper deck, making the score 6-2, Tigers. Thanks, Denny. Mantle sweetened his own retirement pot the next day when he took Red Sox righthander Jim Lonborg deep for number 536.

Almost a decade earlier, Mantle’s far less controversial teammate was offered a season-ending gift. Bobby Richardson was a sharp defensive second baseman who was often made the Yankees’ leadoff hitter. How did a guy with a .299 lifetime on-base percentage become a leadoff hitter? For one reason only: Richardson was almost impossible to strike out. (His lifetime average strikeouts per 162 games: 28.)

Richardson was also a devout Christian then and now. His usual Yankee running mates were fellow clean-livers, shortstop Tony Kubek and pitcher Bobby Shantz, and the trio was nicknamed the Milk Shake Kids. The only skirts they ever chased were the ones wrapped around their own wives; the strongest drink they probably ever took was fresh lemonade.

In fact, they inadvertently helped expose the Great Yankee Private Detective Agency in the late 1950s. When GM George Weiss hired a firm in hopes of throttling some of the randier Yankees’ off-field pursuits, the joy boys shook the dicks but the dicks still latched onto a group of Yankees anyway, tailing them around town until discovering it was the Milk Shake Kids . . . and the vice to which they were in such hot pursuit was (wait for it!) ping pong.

On the final day of the 1959 season, Richardson stood with an excellent chance of becoming the only Yankee to hit .300 or better on the year. As Richardson remembered to New York Daily News writer Bill Madden for Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, he was supposed to get two gifts that day. Manager Casey Stengel would lift him from the game if he got a hit his first time up, and the Orioles were willing to do anything to let him have his hit.

The Orioles’ scheduled starting pitcher Billy O’Dell, a friend of Richardson who shared quail hunting trips with him, told him before the game he’d be “throwing one right in there for you.” Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson said he’d play deep at third in case Richardson felt like a bunt. Even the day’s plate umpire, Ed Hurley, was in on the little fix: “If you hit it on the ground, just make it look close at first.”

Richardson and Madden would make you believe that, first time up, Richardson smacked a line drive to right—and Orioles right fielder Albie Pearson made a diving catch on it. Richardson laughed to Madden recalling it. “Pearson was one of my closest friends in the game—we’d spoken together at church! He must have been the only person in the ballpark who didn’t know I was supposed to get my hit!”

Richardson is as honest as the day is long; if he ever told a lie in his life his jaw would probably dislodge from his skull. But precise memory fails even the most honest of men. Because the record actually shows that Richardson got his hit leading off the bottom of the first . . . and Pearson was nowhere near the ball: it was a line double to left center field.

And Stengel didn’t lift Richardson from the game. In the third inning Richardson hit the liner on which Pearson dove for the catch, and he also smacked a one-out single in the bottom of the sixth. Richardson didn’t leave the game until the Yankees were in a 3-1 hole with one out in the bottom of the eighth (the score would hold for a season-ending Orioles win), and Stengel elected to pinch hit for him.

The pinch hitter: the future superstar of Original Mets calamity, Marv Throneberry, who wasn’t yet nicknamed Marvelous. And O’Dell struck him out. Which was less embarrassing than what happened to the next Yankee hitter after Mantle hit McLain’s gift out.

Joe Pepitone watched the Mantle-McLain comedy from the on-deck circle and concluded McLain wouldn’t quit feeling generous when he checked in at the plate. So, just as Mantle did during his at-bat, Pepitone waggled the barrel of the bat over the plate to say where he’d like some service. And McLain knocked Pepitone on his ass with the first pitch.