A pedigree that works

Lineage: Cal Jr.'s famous work ethic can be traced not only to his father, but also to his uncle Bill, the first of the Ripkens to play professionally.

The Ripken Legacy : The Family

October 10, 2001|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

PERRYVILLE - He lives in a weathered trailer on Route 40. Next door is a tow-truck company where silver-haired Bill Ripken toils, eight hours a day, six days a week, answering the phones and emptying the trash. At 75, the Iron Man's uncle won't call it quits.

It's the Ripken work ethic.

"I've got to do something with my time," says the retired bank vice president, who, like the rest of his kin, can't bear being idle. "What am I supposed to do, sit around and watch TV?"

William Kennedy Ripken is the forgotten Ripken, the outfielder who bounced around in the Brooklyn Dodgers' chain in the late 1940s while his sibling, Cal, was still a youngster. In time, Cal would follow him, playing pro ball before injuries set him to managing in the Baltimore farm system, shaping untold numbers of prospects.

Eventually, Cal would rise to pilot the Orioles, managing a team that included two of his own sons - one named Cal Jr. and the other Bill. Before and after that, his stints as third base coach made him a fixture down the line.

It's a legacy few families in organized baseball can match, a lineage based as much on the Ripkens' perseverance as on their pedigree. His arm, his eye, his athleticism, Cal Jr. inherited from his elders; the discipline and drive, he learned through imitation.

Their multi-generational influence gives the Ripkens a unique place in the annals of the sport, says Norman L. Macht, a baseball author and historian who lives in Easton.

Though you won't find Cal Jr. and his dad listed among the Boones, the Griffeys, the Bondses or the 150 other father-and-son tandems who've played in the majors (Cal Sr. failed to reach the big leagues), the Ripkens are one for the record books, says Macht.

"Given the extent to which Cal Sr.'s teachings influenced the Orioles, the impact of the Ripkens on Baltimore is greater than the impact of any other father-and-son combination on any team in baseball."

Cal Jr. was tutored by his dad, who was tutored by his brother, Bill, 9 years older than his sibling and the first of the clan to play professionally. Macht saw Bill Ripken play for Cambridge, then a Dodgers farm club, in a game against Dover, Del., in 1947. He still has a faded scorecard with the center fielder's name and number (2) on it.

"Can't say that I remember him, though," says Macht, then 17.

That was Bill Ripken's first season with the Brooklyn organization in a three-year minor-league career that would take him to Lancaster, Pa.; Danville, Ill.; and Triple-A Montreal, then the springboard to The Show.

Those were Spartan times, says Ripken, who recalls getting $6 a day in meal money and making 400-mile jaunts in a rickety bus to burgs like Waterloo, Iowa. At Danville, he played alongside outfielder Jimmy Williams, later the Orioles' first base coach.

Ripken was "a pretty good ballplayer," Williams recalls. "The Dodgers thought quite a bit of him. Bill had a good arm and was one of the better runners in the organization, though he didn't have much pop [in his bat]."

Off the field, Ripken was as low-key as his nephew would turn out to be, says Williams, his roommate back then. "He was quiet, like Cal Jr., not a guy to jump up and down," he says.

"Cal Sr. was never that outgoing, either, except with umpires."

In 1949, Bill Ripken walked away from the game. His dream had stalled in chilly Montreal, where he rode the bench and "like to froze to death." The Dodgers tried to change his mind."[General manager] Branch Rickey said, `You can be a utility player in the major leagues - a pinch runner, a late-innings defensive replacement. You have the talent to do that,' " Ripken says. "I said no."

Industry, not indolence, is the Ripkens' trait.

Bill still remembers his arduous chores at the homestead near Aberdeen before he could skip off to play ball. The place was always bustling: The Ripkens lived atop the family's general store, a rambling, three-story building with 13 rooms, a 30-foot porch and a Sunoco gas pump out front.

"My father [Arend] worked 16 hours a day. During the Depression, he had no choice," says Ripken. Household tasks were divvied up among Arend's three sons, Oliver, Bill and Cal.

Bill's job was to mow the spacious lawn - "three and a half hours, with a push mower" - and to keep his mother's rock gardens trimmed. Clara Amelia Ripken was nuts about her rock gardens.

"We played catch when - no, if - we had spare time," Bill says.

Eighteen years separated Oliver, the oldest, who is now 84, from Cal, who died in 1999 at 63. Oliver played semipro ball. But Bill conveyed the fundamentals he learned with the Dodgers to Cal, then a teen-ager.

The regimen stuck with Bill, along with what it taught. "We got up at 6:30 a.m., ate breakfast and went to class," studying plays on a blackboard, he says. On the field, "we did the same thing over and over and over until we got it right."

Perhaps the Ripken way had its origins under the palm trees at Vero Beach.

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