The actual anniversary of Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s record is Sunday but with the schedule putting the Orioles on the road, they celebrated the 20th anniversary of that milestone Tuesday night at Camden Yards. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed since that magical run around the ballpark when his 2131st consecutive game played became official.
Carl Yastrzemski did something similar in his final game at Fenway Park but the circumstances surrounding Ripken’s victory lap were quite different. One year earlier, baseball was in the middle of a devastating work stoppage. Ripken, in a large part due to his streak, was usually considered exempt from the cry of “spoiled ball players” or “why are these overpaid people on strike?”
That popularity was also true within the hobby. Awhile back, I wrote about how immediately after the strike sales of new baseball cards began to plummet. And while I’m sure fewer Ripken cards were being sold during that period, his ranking among active players actually strengthened. He was priced at the highest level of any active player and would remain that way till he retired in 2001. The hobby understood how Ripken had already done enough to be a Hall of Famer and how his public persona was unaffected by any of those labor issues.
He was a great ambassador for the sport while facing the daily pressure. To this day, fans remember that after almost every game, unless there was a plane to catch or other events which took precedence, Ripken would sign autographs until the last person in line received one. He signed thousands of baseballs, programs, baseball cards, pictures, ticket stubs and whatever else fans had with them. It became the stuff of legend for collectors, who with patience and accepting a one per person limit, could snare an autograph of the game’s most popular player—one who was making a remarkable bit of history. And it did it not only in front of the home fans but also on the road.
And yes, I had probably the only food-stained, autographed version of Cal Ripken’s autobiography. I bought the book because a flight to Cleveland for the 1997 All-Star game was delayed for several hours so I wanted something to read. Yes, this was long before lap tops and smart phones. Later, I took the book to dinner at Red Lobster where it wound up somehow becoming a little less than mint. OK, a lot less. When Ripken did a book signing in Dallas, one of my co-workers got it autographed for me. Later on, I sold a huge collection of signed books to Pat Blandford and that book was among them. I’m sure some collector bought that book at a Kevin Savage auction and if you have that copy, I apologize.
There was once a time when some other rookie cards from Ripken’s 1982 class were just as popular. Dave Righetti, Jesse Barfield, George Bell and even Terry Francona had their fans. I remember one time early in 1982 I went after Ripken rookie cards when the person had them priced the same as Righetti. Remember, that was in the New York/New Jersey area and Rags was very popular. But I took my chances and purchased extra Ripken rookie cards and for once guessed right and therefore had a nice supply for the next several years.
The other part of Ripken’s s hobby legacy has to do with the fake 1982 Topps rookie cards. I remember at a show, some dealer was proudly showing me his 1982 Topps cello pack with Ripken on top. I stated that the pack was a fake and the Ripken would be a blank-backed card. We made some wager and I was scared the card would come out clean and I would have to pay the dealer and explain on my Beckett expense report about spending money on a pack of cards with Ripken on top. Fortunately for my wallet, the card did come out blank backed and the dealer was shocked that I called that so easily. Those packs have mainly disappeared from the hobby but for a while they were all over the place.
Those are some of my hobby memories about Cal. And yes, I did stand in line after an Orioles/Rangers game and got an autograph from Cal during one of those famous post-game signing sessions. And, speaking on behalf of everyone Cal signed so willingly for, I’d like to thank him for the memories and his kindness at a time when baseball really needed him.