Cal Sr., teacher of Oriole Way, dies

Ex-coach, manager defined by his passion for baseball

March 26, 1999|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

One man exemplified a baseball credo -- the Oriole Way -- even more than his famous son.

Calvin Edwin Ripken Sr. died yesterday at Johns Hopkins Hospital after a six-month battle with lung cancer. He was 63.

A headstrong man with a fierce work ethic and a passion for baseball, Mr. Ripken spent more than half his life in the Orioles organization. Stern and exacting, he tutored many a young player in the Oriole Way, a regimen that stressed the minutiae of the game.

They included his own sons, Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken Jr., known as the Iron Man for his consecutive-games streak, and former infielder Bill Ripken.

"Do the little things right," the senior Ripken said, "and there will be no big things to worry about."

Doug DeCinces, a former Oriole, recalled: "He was the dictator of that regimen, instructing us on everything down to how to wear our socks. He said, `Take pride in your appearance and you'll take pride in your game.' "

A native of Harford County, Mr. Ripken was born in a tiny room atop the family's general store in Stepney, a crossroads three miles south of Aberdeen. A 1954 graduate of Aberdeen High, Mr. Ripken played ball there and met Violet Gross, a mechanic's daughter whom he later married.

A catcher, he signed with the Orioles in 1956 and kicked around in the minor leagues for six years, forging a career on guts and wits. Mr. Ripken once volunteered to catch three straight doubleheaders -- six games in three days. His best year was 1960, when he hit .281 at Class B Fox Cities, Wis., before an arm injury ended his playing career.

"He was hitting over .300 until our team bus driver quit and Cal started doing his job, too," said Earl Weaver, who managed that club en route to baseball's Hall of Fame. "The 15-hour bus trips were strenuous work, but Rip always was hard as nails -- toughness personified."

Mr. Ripken's teammates at the time included a strapping young slugger named John "Boog" Powell and pitcher Pat Gillick.

"Even when I played with him, I was being coached by him," Mr. Powell said yesterday of Mr. Ripken. "He was the consummate of everything you think about baseball."

`Very principled'

Mr. Ripken was "a hard-nosed guy," said Mr. Gillick, "a real baseball Joe and an excellent, excellent defensive catcher. He was a very principled individual. He had his own way of thinking and never swayed from that.

"He was a true baseball man who loved the game and dedicated his life to it," said Mr. Gillick, the Orioles general manager from 1995 through 1998.

In 1961, Mr. Ripken began managing his way up the Orioles chain, a 14-year ascent that earned him three minor-league pennants and nearly 1,000 victories. Between games, he mowed the field and repaired the team bus. He taught baseball fundamentals like a Marine and suggested that a rising young slugger named Eddie Murray become a switch-hitter.

Mr. Ripken had orange in his blood, colleagues said.

"He was a symbol of the Orioles," said pitching coach Mike Flanagan, who played for Mr. Ripken in the minors and the majors. "He always stood for Orioles ways."

"He was my manager, my teacher, my confidant," said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who broke into baseball under Mr. Ripken. "He was the first authority figure I had in an Orioles uniform. He formulated and set the foundation for my career."

"I can't think of a better man to have learned from," Texas Rangers manager Johnny Oates said of Mr. Ripken, for whom he played in his first year of pro ball. "He taught me things I never knew, about the game and about life.

"I wouldn't be here today without him. I wouldn't be in baseball," Oates said.

In his own backyard, Mr. Ripken relied on that same kind of no-nonsense nurturing. There he gathered a bat, a ball and his brood and taught them the basics.

He hit grounder after grounder, which bounced off the arms, legs and chests of his sons -- Cal Jr., Bill and their older brother, Fred.

Complaints, Mr. Ripken dismissed. "The ball only weighs 5 1/4 ounces," he would say. "How much can it hurt?"

The Orioles made Mr. Ripken bullpen coach in 1976; a year later, he moved to third base, where he coached for 9 1/2 seasons before being named manager in 1987.

The promotion didn't change his demeanor. Opening Day found him on the mound, pitching batting practice, as he'd done daily for nearly a decade.

Inheriting a bad team

Mr. Ripken inherited the first last-place team in the club's history. He was also the first in the majors to manage two of his sons, having fathered half of the Orioles infield -- Cal Jr. at shortstop and Bill at second base.

The Orioles went 67-95 and finished 31 games back, in what was then their third-worst season. That winter, Mr. Ripken was best man at Cal Jr.'s wedding.

In 1988, he returned as manager -- for one winless week. Then Mr. Ripken was gone, subject to one of the most abrupt firings in modern baseball history.

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