Monday, March 5, 2018

Ripken, Gehrig and Ironmen streaks

John Eisenberg has a nice book on "The Streak" of consecutive games played by Cal Ripken-- as well as the streak of the man he surpassed (Lou Gehrig) and the history of the other streaks (particularly, pre-Gehrig). In addition to describing the two streaks and the men behind them, Eisenberg wrestles with the "idea" of streaks (why are they attractive?) and the pros/cons of streaks (is it better to be dogmatically consistent or to take breaks?)

The book is well-written with Eisenberg artfully interweaving stories. Early-on, the weaving is within chapters. Later, Eisenberg rotates topics between chapters-- generally, with a chapter on Ripken, and a chapter on Gehrig, and a chapter on something else.

Both were great players. Ripken won 2 MVP's, made 15 All-Star Games, had 3,000 hits and 400 HR's. Beyond that, he changed the way shortstops were seen/used in baseball-- from a light-hitting, slick-fielding middle infielder to a slugger who could field at least reasonably well. "He would alter basic notions about his position." (3). Gehrig is sixth in RBI and top in grand slams. He was 28th in HR's (with 493); 33rd in triples; 41st in doubles; 19th in total bases; and 16th in batting average (.340).

The book is mostly about Ripken, but includes quite a bit of discussion about Gehrig too. Gehrig played into the 1939 season, but by then, ALS had devastated his play. On July 4th, he uttered the famous line: "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth". And he was dead in two years. Ripken chased "a famously doomed legend, literally the stuff of Hollywood...The Pride of the Yankees" (19) with its 11 Academy Award nominations (21).

On the night Ripken broke the record, play was stopped for 22 minutes of applause. It was Rafael Palmeiro who suggested that he run around the outskirts of the field while the fans celebrated (2). Ripken said that catching the last out of the World Series was his best baseball moment, but "the victory lap was my best human moment". (9) After the game was over, there was a ceremony to honor the streak, including remarks by Joe DiMaggio (22-23).

Eisenberg describes Ripken's family/background in chapter 4: blue-collar family and son of a big-league coach. He was drafted 48th in 1978 (behind Larry Sheets and Eddie Hook), the O's initially wanted him to be a pitcher, but ironically, Ripken wanted to be an "everyday player". And he had a streak in the minor leagues until he was called up to the majors.

In chapter 19, Eisenberg compares the Gehrig and Ripken streaks-- with respect to game schedules, travel (trains vs. time zones), grass vs. turf, media pressure, positional demands (SS vs. 1B), and "streak integrity" (Gehrig cut a few corners). In chapter 21, we're told about Sachio Kinugasa who Ripken surpassed for the world record in 1996.) After nagging injuries over a season and a half, he finally stopped the streak (of 2632 games) late in the 1998 season before retiring in 2001.

Eisenberg covers Gehrig's streak of 2130 games in chapters 9, 11, 14, 17. Before Gehrig, nicknamed "the Iron Horse", the record (of 1307 games) had been most recently held by Everett Scott (the subject of chapter 6 and the first half of chapter 8), the Yankees' shortstop when Gehrig broke into the majors. (Joe Sewell was the only other player to have more than 1,000 games and he too joined the Yankees in 1931.) Before that, the first streaks of note belonged to Eddie Hornung (464 straight games in 1882-1884), George Pinkney (578 but not recognized at the time), Eddie Collins (478), Fred Luderus (533).

Eisenberg even ranges back to the origins of "ironman" efforts (24-26), including the Greek story/legend behind the marathon in 490 BC, the inclusion of the marathon in the first modern Olympics (in 1896 won by a Greek!), the first Boston Marathon (in 1897-- only 24.5 miles), and swimming the English Channel (starting in 1875).

Eisenberg briefly covers post-Gehrig / pre-Ripken streaks (in particular, Billy Williams and Dale Murphy in chapter 18; Steve Garvey in chapter 20) and a handful of relatively puny post-Ripken streaks (xi).

Back in the day, it was more common-- with smaller rosters (owners couldn't imagine paying reserves to sit!) and no substitutions allowed except for injuries. Also, back in the day, records and box scores were not kept as carefully, making the accounting more difficult and obscure. Eisenberg points to the streaks as one of the catalysts for Al Munro Elias to get into what we now call "sabermetrics"-- an intense focus on the stats behind baseball-- forming the Elias Statistical Bureau in 1913 to sell stats (53)!

Eisenberg wrestles with some "philosophical" issues too: In chapter 12, what does it take to be an ironman? How else could it be measured aside from consecutive games? (Stan Musial had nine seasons when he played every game-- more than any player except Ripken, Gehrig, and Pete Rose.)

In chapter 15, what "shenanigans" were used to bolster streaks-- especially, token appearances-- and were those ethical? In chapter 16, we're told about the Ripken streak's close calls with respect to injury. Eisenberg relays the shenanigans that went into artificially extending other streaks, but Ripken was uninterested in this approach.  

In chapter 18, is it a good idea to pursue such streaks? What are the pros/cons? (In chapter 22, Eisenberg notes the many reasons why it is nearly-impossible that the streak will be surpassed again. So, the point is moot!) All things equal, we should strive to be consistent, dependable, etc. But when are things not all equal?

One of the questions that arises is the extent to which growing tired is a detriment to performance. In 1983, he his .315 in August and .385 in September. Ripken credits his early-career, late-season success as a key to being allowed to play without a break (73). In 1987, Ripken set a consecutive innings record (80). When he was struggling at the plate-- particularly, late in a season-- questions would arise. But he always did well enough or contributed in other ways (with defense and calling pitches occasionally) to stay in there.

Whatever you think of the Streak (Buster Olney said Ripken was the most selfish player he'd ever met, because of it!), it's an amazing thing. Thanks to Eisenberg for writing the book!


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