Ripken, Gehrig share more than simple numbers

John Steadman

December 18, 1992|By John Steadman

Tracing the legendary footsteps of an immortal while chasing after what was once thought to be an insurmountable record means Cal Ripken Jr. and Lou Gehrig are being brought closer together -- mathematically and now in an even more personal way. The Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, presented for the 38th time, is being given to the Orioles shortstop.

How appropriate. The honor is bestowed for achievement on the field, community involvement and character traits that reflect in a positive manner on baseball.

Phi Delta Theta, which was Gehrig's fraternity while he was at Columbia University, and its 1,600 alumni perpetuate the name of their illustrious member by continuing this annual memorial.

Robert Biggs, executive vice president of the fraternity, said the selection panel, chaired by Ritter Collett, veteran sports editor of the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, was unanimous in voting for Ripken.

"My emphasis has never been on Lou's record," Ripken said. "In fact, I deliberately try to keep Gehrig and the record out of my thinking. Playing every day is a matter of personal pride. I started my career with the thought of being involved in the game every day to help the Orioles win. I appreciate the recognition I have gotten for trying to be a good citizen."

By playing in 1,735 straight games, Ripken is only 395 shy of what was believed to be a durability mark that would never be seriously challenged. Although it's an achievement to be second to Gehrig, it's Ripken's desire not to concentrate on the subject. And he explained:

"Fans send me magazine articles and old clippings of Gehrig, but I file it all away. If the day comes when I set the record, then

I'll want to know more about Lou. If it comes to pass, it will be a source of pride and satisfaction. Knowing what luck is involved in avoiding injuries, it's still a long way off."

Although deeply concerned with charitable causes, the first priority of Cal and wife Kelly is the adult literacy programs that they started for the city in 1989 with a $250,000 contribution. They have continued to work to further the cause.

He's also associated with the University of Maryland Hospital's Shock Trauma Center, the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, the March of Dimes, Christmas Seals, the American Lung Association and the Harford Center, which assists retarded citizens.

"There comes a time when you have to step back and say you can't respond to every request," he said. "It's a sign of maturity to concentrate on where you think you can do the most good. That's why our efforts in literacy give us the great satisfaction they do."

The Gehrig Award will be presented formally before an Orioles game this coming season.

His choice stands as a most fitting tribute. Ripken is running out of wall space to accommodate all the presentations, trophies, plaques and citations, but this is something special. It has a significance of its own because it carries Gehrig's name, and he has every reason to be elated.

Two previous Orioles, Robin Roberts, in 1962, and Brooks Robinson, in 1966, were similarly honored. Additionally, Rick Sutcliffe, when he was a Chicago Cub, in 1987, and Glenn Davis, during his time with the Houston Astros, in 1990, also received the Gehrig Award. The only Baltimore native to gain the same distinction was Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers in 1968.

Such other accomplished performers as Stan Musial, Harold "Pee Wee" Reese, Warren Spahn, Ernie Banks, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Dale Murphy, Wes Parker, Ken Boyer, Henry Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Ton Perez and Alvin Dark, who was the first honoree in 1955, are counted among previous Gehrig recipients.

Gehrig's reputation was that of a gentleman, although taciturn and somewhat aloof, and he stands as one of the game's most magnificent performers. Gehrig was forced into retirement by the disease that attacked his spine in 1939, after playing 2,130 consecutive games with the New York Yankees. It was a streak that had started in 1925 when he took over for regular Wally Pipp and stayed there.

When Gehrig died at age 38, apart from his longevity at first base, he left an awesome record. His lifetime batting average was .340 and in three of 17 seasons he surpassed .370. Four times, he accounted for more than 45 home runs and, over all, accounted for 493 homers. Like his more celebrated teammate, Babe Ruth, he never had a season where he struck out 100 times, which is an extraordinary statistic for a free-swinger.

To this point, Ripken shows a career average of .277 and 273 home runs. For the past 10 years he has been an American League All-Star, plus a two-time Gold Glove winner, which is symbolic of fielding excellence. His position, shortstop, is the most demanding on the field from the standpoint of execution and dexterity. He plays it with grace, style and precision.

Although there's no comparison when it comes to Cal's matching Lou's offensive statistics, Ripken overwhelms him in the salary department to the point of embarrassment. Gehrig's top earning year, 1938, saw him make $39,500. Ripken, meanwhile, is making over $6 million per season, which is indicative of the times rather than any measurement of ability.

If Gehrig was the "Pride of the Yankees" then Ripken qualifies for a similar appellation -- "Pride of the Orioles." The Gehrig Award links them closer together, the past and the present.

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