Celebrities. Presidents. Flashbulbs exploding across the night sky.
Legends. Teammates. Banners unfurling with pomp and circumstance.
Exactly 25 years ago, on Sept. 6, 1995, Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak by playing No. 2,131 at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland.
It wasn’t just a moment in sports history; it was a moment that transcended sports to attract titans of pop culture, “one moment in time,” that saved baseball from itself.
Ripken’s streak cleansed the stain of Aug. 12, 1994, when a player’s strike canceled the rest of the season. To this day, Montreal Expos fans cite their league-leading 74-40 record as a truncated example of “what could have been,” a painful reminder for a franchise that would soon become the Washington Nationals.
Most blasphemous was the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since its inception in 1904. It was a sin worse than Shoeless Joe Jackson throwing the 1919 World Series, only this time there was no “Field of Dreams” to offer a penance.
On second thought, maybe there was.
Baltimore had just built a new ballpark in 1992, leaving the glory days of Memorial Stadium to create a retro sanctuary carved into the side of a warehouse. “If you build it, he will come,” only the “it” was Camden Yards and the “he” was Cal Ripken Jr.
At a time when jaded fans swore they’d never watch greedy millionaires again, along came lunch-pail Cal punching his time card and playing the game “The Ripken Way.”
His workmanlike approach was so understated that outsiders underrated his elite achievements: World Series champion, Rookie of the Year, two-time Most Valuable Player, multiple Gold Glove winner and the most home runs ever by a shortstop.
Yet it was his consecutive games streak that made history as a nation discovered that a mere mortal didn’t miss a game from May 30, 1982 to Sept. 20, 1998. Presidents golfed, C.E.O.s took vacations, athletes held out for bigger contracts. Ripken played.
It unfolded in a fitting location, just blocks from the birthplace of Babe Ruth, teammate of Gehrig, who compiled an “unbreakable” streak of 2,130 consecutive games as the “pride” of the New York Yankees. The Iron Horse was immortal, his streak only ending due to a mysterious illness that now bears his name, Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS.
Half a century later, Baltimoreans felt like “the luckiest fans on the face of the earth.”
The buildup was magic. As Ripken neared the historic night, giant numbers fell on the warehouse with each game: 2123, 2124, 2125.
My family drove from Frederick to attend one of the final 10 games, then watched the remainder on television until the big night when we gathered around the TV set with my grandparents to witness history.
If you didn’t watch it live, I highly recommend going back and watching the entire event. It’s no exaggeration to say that — save for George W. Bush’s first pitch after 9/11 — there was an unrivaled level of pageantry that may never be replicated.
A parade of celebrities visited the pitcher’s mound after the record-tying and record-breaking games to pay their respects, while President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore watched from their suite.
Hometown heroes were all on deck: Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver, Cal Ripken Sr., the entire starting roster from Cal’s first game and current teammates like Brady Anderson. Beloved sportscaster Jon Miller broadcast on Home Team Sports, while stadium announcer Rex Barney declared his signature, “Thank youuuuuuuu.”
Other MLB Hall of Famers took the field one-by-one to shake Cal’s hand and give their official blessing to the new standard-bearer of our national pastime: Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and a torch-passing speech by Gehrig’s own iconic teammate Joe DiMaggio:
“There’s a beautiful monument to Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium that says, ‘A man, a gentleman and a great ballplayer whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time.’ Well, that goes to prove that even the greatest records are made to be broken. Wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”
Other sports icons came bearing gifts: NFL Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, Maryland Terrapins men’s basketball coach Gary Williams with No. 1 draft pick Joe Smith, NBA champion David Robinson, tennis star Pam Shriver and Olympic gold medalist Bonnie Blair.
The event even attracted TV and movie stars. “Late Night” host David Letterman unveiled an exclusive Top 10 list over the jumbotron, “Mr. Baseball” Tom Selleck delivered a commemorative bat, and the cast of “The Young and the Restless” recorded a special tribute sketch.
From the music world, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Joan Jett sang the national anthem on the night Ripken tied the streak, while pianist Bruce Hornsby and saxophonist Branford Marsalis played their Grammy-winning rendition the night he broke it. The duo even paused long enough for the crowd to chant “O!!!!” as Marsalis pumped his fist.
As for the games, Ripken hit home runs in both the record-tying and record-breaking games, as if he was Robert Redford in “The Natural.” Still, no one could have scripted the moment when play stopped in the fifth inning and ESPN’s Chris Berman said, “To anyone who has a remote control, do yourself a favor: Tuck it under the couch.”
With the game in the books, the banners dropped to show “2131” to a crescendo by John Tesh. The crowd gave a standing ovation for 5 minutes and 20 seconds. Ripken emerged from the dugout three times to tip his hat, then was shoved by teammates to take an impromptu lap, high-fiving fans to Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time.”
I’m not exaggerating when I say this: Grown men and women wept that day.
Three years later, baseball exploded to new popularity with the home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, followed by the record-shattering bombs of Barry Bonds, but true fans knew the sport’s real savior.
Ripken resurrected the game with grace, class and a steady hand, while the bloated McGwire, Sosa and Bonds artificially inflated it with steroids just to see it come crashing down again. Their greed stained the game. Cal’s selflessness healed it.
There’s no debate. No need for asterisks. No need for controversy. It’s not even close.
The Iron Man saved baseball.
Watch the definitive video of all the pageantry here: