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‘The Streak’ looks at Ripken, Gehrig and more

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Eisenberg book a well-hit, well-researched work of baseball history

No American professional sport is as enamored of its own history as baseball. The combination of the statistical and the anecdotal provides a wide-ranging record that allows lovers of the game to find the connections with the strongest personal resonance.

Baseball loves its records – and it particularly loves its records that it perceives as unbreakable. No one is ever again going to win 511 games in a career like Cy Young did; the game has changed too much. The likelihood of someone proving able to match Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Rickey Henderson’s 130 steals in a season is slim; while the skill sets still exist, the odds are overwhelmingly against such feats being matched.

But somewhere in between, in the central overlap of the Venn diagram of skill and durability, is a record that consists solely of showing up.

Veteran sportswriter John Eisenberg explores that record – most consecutive games played – in his new book “The Streak: Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken Jr., and Baseball’s Most Historic Record” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). It’s a thorough look at two men who became celebrated “Iron Men” for their single-minded devotion to the game they loved; incredibly talented ballplayers who nevertheless wound up defined by the fact that they refused to take a day off.

For decades, the number 2,130 had special, almost talismanic meaning for fans of baseball history. That was the number of consecutive games in which New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig played; from June 1, 1925 through April 30 of 1939, Gehrig played in every single Yankees game. His streak came to an end due to illness – an illness that was soon diagnosed as amyotrophic later sclerosis (ALS) and would ultimately become known by the name of the famous athlete felled by it.

While this kind of streak wasn’t always a big deal – the man Gehrig passed was Everett Scott, whose 1,307-game run was viewed as more of a curiosity than anything – after Gehrig, it entered into fandom’s consciousness in a real way. But while a handful of players put together impressive runs in subsequent decades – Billy Williams managed over 1,100 in the 1960s; Steve Garvey got as far as 1,207 before injury felled him in 1983 – no one ever put forth a real challenge to the Iron Horse.

And then came Cal Ripken Jr.

Ripken was a rookie, a baseball legacy kid who was talented but still raw when he came up to the Baltimore Orioles in the early 1980s to play shortstop. A big guy who redefined the possible physical attributes of his position, he hardly seemed a candidate to make a run at Gehrig. But starting on May 30, 1982, Ripken simply never stopped playing. Through injuries and labor stoppages and slumps and whatever else you like, he never stopped playing.

In 1995, Ripken helped reinvigorate a sport still reeling from a strike, passing Gehrig on September 6 when he played in his 2,131st straight game. He’d go on to tack on 500 more for good measure, finally bringing the streak to a close in September of 1998.

“The Streak” masterfully weaves together these two narratives, bringing the journeys of both men into sharp individual focus while also finding ways to juxtapose them. Both men were legendary talents, Hall of Fame players whose production places them in the upper echelon of all-timers. And yet, both of their legacies are defined by these streaks. Their greatness would not have been lessened if either had taken the occasional day off; indeed, many argued that the streaks had a negative impact on both individual and team success.

Yet there’s something relatable about this particular record, something that allows the common fan to connect in a way that other records preclude. Because, at its core, this record is about doing your job. It’s about doing what you do to the best of your abilities even when circumstances might not be ideal for doing so. We all go to work at something less than our best sometimes; that’s what Gehrig and Ripken did. We might not be able to hit a ball 500 feet or throw it 100 miles per hour, but we can show up to work every day.

Eisenberg was a Baltimore sportswriter during Ripken’s streak, so he’s certainly close to the story on that end. However, Gehrig is also meticulously covered – the degree of research put forth throughout is astounding. The two tales are laid out in parallel, moving back and forth between the stories as each man continues his streak through all manner of obstacles large and small.

While Gehrig and Ripken are the two Ironmen that serve as the book’s focus, “The Streak” also spends some time with a few players who had notable stretches of their own. The aforementioned Scott, Williams and Garvey get some run. So do old-time guys like George Pinkney and Joe Sewell, along with some mid-century guys like Stan Musial and more recent streakers like Miguel Tejada and Prince Fielder. Of course, Gehrig and Ripken remain the stars of the show.

“The Streak” is a phenomenal read for anyone interested in baseball history. These streaks are indelible highlights in the game’s long and winding story, while Gehrig and Ripken are players without whom that story could never be fully told. Well-researched and engagingly-written, this book will captivate fans of our national pastime.  

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