Ripken's childhood in Aberdeen, time in minors sowed seeds that bloomed into The Streak

  • The countdown sign in Aberdeen for Cal Ripken's streak.
The countdown sign in Aberdeen for Cal Ripken's streak. (Patrick Sandor, Baltimore…)
September 03, 1995|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

The runner, all 240 pounds of him, barreled toward second base with one thought in mind: break up the double play. Slide, schmide. He lowered his shoulder and struck the second baseman, a scrawny ninth-grader who flew up like a rag doll.

The kid fell in a lifeless heap. His baseball coach at Aberdeen High rushed out, fearing the worst. "I thought he was dead," the coach said. "I thought I'd find half of him in left field and the other half in center."

Then Cal Ripken's eyes fluttered open and a tiny voice gasped, "I'm OK, coach -- don't take me out!"

In 1975, Ripken didn't look much like Iron Man, though he certainly acted like him: By 14, he'd already developed a fierce competitiveness and a major-league stubborn streak that would carry him inexorably toward Lou Gehrig's major-league record of 2,130 consecutive games played.

He's expected to break that mark Wednesday, in a game against the California Angels at Camden Yards.

Born to a family whose Harford County roots reach back more than two centuries -- one of his mother's ancestors fought during the American Revolution -- Ripken hails from sturdy stock. From his father, a headstrong man of German and Irish descent, Ripken inherited an indomitable will and a passion for baseball: Cal Sr. spent more than half his life with the Orioles as player, coach and manager.

From his mother, a resourceful woman who raised four children, Ripken got a puckish sense of humor that has helped temper his perfectionism.

Ripken's private nature has made his early years a closed book to most baseball fans, who know him only from the start of his big-league career. But family, friends and former classmates say that the traits that would lead to The Streak began showing early in Ripken's life, when he was short, skinny and still known as Calvin.

'The kid had guts'

Twenty years later, the first man to knock Cal Ripken from a ballgame vividly recalls the play. It is, Steve Slagle says, the sweetest hit he ever made.

"It was the perfect hit, you know, one of those shots that you don't really feel," says Slagle, then a star at Elkton High. "I played college football, but I never hit anybody harder than [Ripken]. When it happened, our whole bench stood up and went, 'Wooooooo.'

"We still discuss 'The Hit' at class reunions."

Ripken was removed from the game, but cajoled his coach into letting him return an inning later under the re-entry rule. Even now, he's piqued that he had to leave the field at all.

"I just wanted a moment to catch my breath, but the decision wasn't up to me," Ripken says. "Who was I, a ninth-grader, to argue with my coach?"

That Ripken even wanted to stick it out surprised the man who nailed him.

"The kid had guts," Slagle says. "Give the Iron Man credit, he's one tough person.

"Hey, tell Cal no hard feelings, OK? Tell him I feel bad about it at 37 -- but I didn't at 16."

Year of the Shortstop

Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. was born Aug. 24, 1960, at Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace. Fifty miles away at Memorial Stadium, the Orioles were pounding the Detroit Tigers, 9-2. It was, in retrospect, The Year of the Shortstop for Baltimore: The Orioles' Ron Hansen earned American League Rookie of the Year honors.

Vi Ripken's earliest recollections of her firstborn son: "A big, full-faced kid with no wrinkles. He was real fair and baldheaded, and he looked a couple months old."

Ripken's father, Cal Sr., a catcher and Orioles farmhand, got the news on the road in Topeka, Kan. The telegram said his son weighed 9 pounds, 2 1/2 ounces, prompting Cal Sr.'s teammate, 19-year-old Boog Powell, to quip, "He must have been born with his catcher's gear on."

From the start, Ripken's movements bore watching.

"Junior always crawled backwards, never forwards," his mother says. "I kept finding him under furniture. He'd back under there and not be able to get out."

He was a relentless climber, scrambling onto tables and chairs to explore new plateaus. Once, Ripken shinnied up a desk, ingested some medicine and was rushed to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. "I'll be good! I'll be good!" he hollered as doctors hovered over the 18-month-old in the emergency room.

One Christmas, Ripken received a bat and ball and began to mimic his father's swing. Vi's eyes darted from her son's stroke to her favorite china; she replaced the ball with rolled-up socks.

Every spring, she shooed her brood outside. Ripken and his siblings -- older sister Elly and younger brothers Fred and Bill -- played in the pastures and woods outside the modest, split-level, three-bedroom home where their parents still live. Balls of all sizes dotted the lawn. Cal Sr. replaced many a garage window without a fuss.

"Dad only got mad if we broke windows from the inside out, which meant we were doing something we shouldn't have," Fred Ripken says.

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