By DENNIS RICHARDSON
14 June 2021
ORLANDO, FL – On the night of Sept. 6, 1995, the eyes of the sports world were focused on Camden Yards in Baltimore.
An estimated nine million TV sets were tuned in to ESPN’s broadcast of the Orioles-California Angels baseball game. Officially, another 46,772 fans packed the stadium, although the actual total was closer to 50,000. While the Orioles were a mediocre team -- their record at the time was 57-64 -- this was the hottest ticket in sports.
Safe to say, a fair number of people at the stadium and watching at home were not even baseball fans, or particularly cared which teams were playing. The fans were only interested in The Streak and witnessing history.
There was a festive feeling in the air. Major League Baseball was still suffering the aftereffects of a disastrous players’ strike that had lasted 232 days (from Aug. 12, 1994, until April 2, 1995), and cost the league more than 900 games, including the entire 1994 postseason and World Series. Baseball, and the nation, needed something to feel good about.
They pegged their hopes on Orioles’ shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr.
If the Orioles led after four-and-one-half innings, the minimum required by MLB to be considered an official game, Ripken would break the record of 2,130 consecutive games played. That mark held by Yankees’ Hall of Fame first baseman Lou “Iron Horse” Gehrig had long been considered to be untouchable.
The game started at 7:35 p.m. Eastern time. Four-and-one-half innings later, at 9:19 p.m., Ripken officially walked into baseball immortality. The Major League Baseball record that everyone said would never be broken was. “The Iron Man” replaced “The Iron Horse.”
A large banner unfurled on the side of a brick, warehouse-style building just beyond Camden Yards’ right field read, “2131”, as did a large neon sign atop the stadium scoreboard. What followed was one of the longest ovations in baseball history, timed at 23 minutes, which included Ripken’s joyous and emotional victory lap around the field.
A 17-Year Streak
Ripken’s Ironman run did not end that evening. The Streak would continue for another 502 games. It began on May 30, 1982, and finally ended on Sept. 20, 1998 – after an astonishing 2,632 games and 17 years. That’s almost three years longer than Gehrig’s record run.
Think about that for a moment. Ripken played in every Baltimore game for 17 seasons. Imagine showing up at your job every day for 17 years, not taking a sick day, or a “mental wellness day,” or staying at home when your kids are ill, or missing a day “just because.”
Ripken played through fatigue, through slumps, through long losing streaks, and through assorted physical ailments that included a bad back. Anyone who’s had back problems can vouch for the difficulty of doing anything – let alone playing baseball at a world-class level -- with a balky back. To play every game for 17 seasons takes a strong work ethic, determination, good health, a Herculean effort, some good fortune, and maybe even a bit of selfishness.
On a number of occasions, observers felt that Ripken and the Orioles would have been better off if he’d taken a break. But, he lived by an ol’ lunch pail-guy’s creed: “If I’m walkin’, I’m workin’.”
When people talk about setting new standards, they trot out old saws about “records are made to be broken,” and “never say never.” With each generation, they note, players get bigger, stronger, faster, and better. Babe Ruth’s career home run record was considered untouchable, then Hank Aaron and later Barry Bonds broke it. Gehrig’s mark likewise was considered unattainable -- until Ripken came along.
But someone playing 2,633 games in a row? Even if that player is a Designated Hitter, the heavy travel demands of today’s game, and the risk of injury and illness help weigh the odds heavily against. Plus, given the money that exists in the game today, there’s seldom need for someone to play that long.
In MLB history, only eight players have appeared in as many as 1,000 games consecutively. Ripken and Gehrig are the only ones to have played in more than 2,000 games without a break.
The most serious challenge in the last several decades to Ripken’s status as the game’s ultimate Ironman came from Miguel Tejada, who played in 1,152 games in a row from June 2, 2000 to June 21, 2007 with Baltimore and Oakland – and Tejada didn’t make it even halfway to Ripken’s total.
The Streak’s Long Shadow
Ripken was a 19-time All-Star; elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He was a Rookie of the Year, a two-time American League MVP, a multiple Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards winner, and collected 3,184 hits and 431 homers. That’s quite a career.
Plus, Ripken re-defined the shortstop position. Before him it was considered primarily a defense-first role. But, Ripken showed that there are players who could meet those demands and still hit .300 with 25-30 homers a year. He paved the way for shortstops like Derek Jeter, A-Rod and Nomar Garciaparra; and later, Fernando Tatis, Jr., Trevor Story, Corey Seager, and Carlos Correa.
Yet, even though he turned shortstop into a glamour position, even though he put up Hall of Fame numbers, and even though it’s been more than one-quarter century since that magical night in Baltimore, the one thing that everyone remembers most about Ripken is The Streak. Breaking one of baseball’s most hallowed records, held by one of the game’s most iconic players, casts a long shadow.
"When I meet people today, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is that they tell me they were at 2,130 or 2,131," Ripken told Tim Kurkjian in an espn.com story several years ago. "It seems like 250,000 people have said they were there. I know there is a certain capacity for major league parks. But it happens every day, even now. Someone will talk to me about that night. And they all have a story."
Yes, records are broken, but not this one. There’s about as much chance of someone playing 2,633 consecutive major-league games as there is Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene flipping from Republican to Democrat.
Ripken’s is the Gold Standard of MLB Records. We’re confident that his remarkable achievement will stand the test of time, as will these other nine.
Longest Hit Streak – Joe DiMaggio, 56 Games
One of Major League Baseball’s most hallowed records – Yankees’ Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak – also is considered one of its most unbreakable.
Consider that in every game from May 15 through July 16 in 1941, “Joltin’ Joe” got at least one hit. Eighty years later, nobody has come closer than Pete Rose, who hit safely in 44 straight games in 1978.
Only six players in baseball history have hit safely in 40 or more consecutive games: DiMaggio, Orioles’ Wee Willie Keeler (45), Rose, Cubs’ Bill Dahlen (42), Browns’ George Sisler (41), and Tigers’ Ty Cobb (40). And, since Rose’s streak, only four have registered a hit in 35 or more games in a row.
There are several obstacles in today’s game that prevent a successful run at DiMaggio’s record. For one, pitching and the specialized use of relievers. During his 56-game hit streak, DiMaggio faced 55 pitchers. In today’s game, a batter can face that many different pitchers in less than 20 games. With the usual parade of relievers, a hitter rarely sees the same pitcher more than twice in the same game – in fact, he may see three different guys in a four-at-bat game. Plus, DiMaggio didn’t have to face today’s cavalcade of pitchers that throw 97-mph fastballs with movement, 94-mph sliders, and 92-mph sinkers.
Second, travel demands. In DiMaggio’s day, there were fewer teams, and St. Louis was the farthest team west, so there was less travel. The Yankees didn’t have to play a Sunday night game on the west coast and then a late-afternoon game the following day on the east coast. Plus, there were more travel days built into the schedule.
Third, today’s ubiquitous media presence. It’s intense enough as is with the ordinary 24/7 news cycle and various media platforms. But when a player hitting streak reaches 35 games, reaches the media attention and demands become almost unbearable.
Most Consecutive No-Hitters – Johnny Vander Meer, 2
There have been 311 “official” no-hitters tossed in MLB history as of this date. Cincinnati Reds’ left-hander Johnny Vander Meer is the only pitcher to have thrown back-to-back no-hitters, holding the Boston Braves hitless on June 11, 1938, and doing the same to the Brooklyn Dodgers four days later.
The odds of a pitcher throwing one no-hitter are listed as 1 in 1,562. The chances of breaking Vander Meer’s record with three straight are virtually incalculable.
Four pitchers have come close to equaling Vander Meer’s mark. In 1947, Cincinnati’s Ewell Blackwell followed his no-hitter with eight hitless innings against the Brooklyn Dodgers four days later, before losing his bid for a second gem in the ninth inning. Similarly, in 1973, the Angels’ Nolan Ryan no-hit the Tigers, and then four days later tossed eight hitless innings before the Orioles’ Mark Belanger singled in the ninth. In 1990, the Blue Jays’ Dave Stieb saw his chances for a second straight no-hitter spoiled in the ninth inning. In 2015, the Nationals’ Max Scherzer allowed just a seventh-inning single to the Brewers’ Carlos Gomez, and then pitched a no-hitter against the Pirates in his next start.
Back-to-back no-hitters again? Very unlikely, even in this “Year of the No-Hitter.” And, three straight? Not happening.
Highest Career Batting Average – Ty Cobb, .367
Ty Cobb’s record .367 batting average over 24 seasons with the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Athletics is safe.
Not since Ted Williams retired as a player in 1960 with a .344 average has anyone come within 25 points of Cobb’s mark. In fact, Rogers Hornsby and Shoeless Joe Jackson, at .358 and .355, respectively, are the only players besides Cobb to hit better than .350 for their careers.
According to baseball-reference.com, the six active players with the highest career batting averages entering 2021 are the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, .313; Houston’s Jose Altuve, .311; Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu, .305; and Reds’ Joey Votto, Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon, and Angels’ Mike Trout, all at .304. Obviously, all are a long way from .367.
Most Career Victories – Cy Young, 511
The great right-hander Cy Young was so dominant that his 511 career victories are almost 100 more than his nearest competitor: Walter Johnson, the only other hurler in MLB history with 400 wins, at 417.
Five times in his career Young won at least 30 games in a season, and in 10 other seasons he won at least 20.
To break Young’s record, a pitcher would have to average almost 26 wins a year for 20 seasons. In today’s era when pitchers get between 32 and 35 starts a season, that’s a difficult target.
Only two active pitchers have as many as 200 career wins entering the 2021 season: Verlander and Houston teammate Zack Greinke. Just three other hurlers have as many as 175 wins: Nationals’ Jon Lester, 193; Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, 175; and Scherzer, 175.
Verlander is age 38 (and rehabbing from Tommy John surgery), Greinke and Lester are 37, Scherzer is 36, and Kershaw is the baby of the group at age 33.
Even if Verlander and Greinke averaged 20 wins a year for four more seasons, they’d still be 200 victories short of Young. If Kershaw notched 20 wins a season for the next six years, his career wins would stand at 295.
Most Career Complete Games – Cy Young, 749
Young has another record that is sure to stand: 749 career complete games.
Among active pitchers, according to baseball-reference.com, Verlander has the most career complete games entering 2021 with 26, followed by the Orioles’ Felix Hernandez and Kershaw with 25 apiece, and Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright with 24.
The complete game is becoming a relic of the past, thanks to teams’ rigid adherence these days to pitch counts, innings caps, and the reliance on bullpens at the first sign of trouble. In fact, in 2019 there were just 45 complete games total. At that pace, it would take all MLB starting pitchers combined more than 16 seasons to catch Young.
Consecutive Seasons with 20 Victories – Christy Mathewson, 12
From 1903-14, the New York Giants’ Christy Mathewson won at least 20 games a record 12 consecutive years (he also won 20 in 1901). During that 12-year stretch he won at least 30 games four times, and finished with 373 career victories.
That’s an incredible streak of excellence, durability, and good fortune. To put it into context, consider some of the top starting pitchers in the last 60 years: Warren Spahn, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Sandy Koufax, Tom Glavine, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Mike Mussina, and Ferguson Jenkins. Of that group of Hall of Famers (all but Clemens are in), only Spahn and Jenkins had more than three straight 20-victory seasons – each had six straight.
There are no threats to Mathewson on the horizon. Again, in today’s game, where a pitcher generally makes between 32 and 35 starts a season, the 20-win season has become all too rare. Corey Kluber and Blake Snell were the only 20-game winners in 2018. And, in 2019, only Verlander and Gerrit Cole earned 20 victories.
Highest Single-Season Batting Average – Nap Lajoie, .426
As a 26-year-old infielder for the Philadelphia Athletics, future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie batted .426 in 1901, the highest of any MLB player in the post-1900 era, according to baseball-reference.com.
In 1924, Hornsby batted .424. Since then, nobody’s come anywhere close. The Red Sox’s Williams was the last player to hit .400 in a season -- .406 in 1941.
The Twins’ Rod Carew hit .388 in 1977, and three years later the Royals’ George Brett batted .390. The Padres’ Tony Gwynn was the last player to seriously flirt with a .400 average. In, 1994, he hit an incredible .423 after the All-Star break and an other-worldly .475 in August to raise his season batting average on Aug. 11 to .394. And, there it stayed – the MLB Players Association went on strike the following day, and the season ended.
In the 25-plus years since, nobody has come close to Gwynn – let alone Lajoie. It’s doubtful we’ll ever see another .400 hitter, because there are just too many obstacles: heavy use of relievers; high walk rates – a walk means one less chance at getting a hit; high strikeout rates; defensive shifts, too much travel, etc.
Most Career No-Hitters – Nolan Ryan, 7
A no-hitter – the perfect game’s less accomplished sibling -- is the second toughest achievement for a pitcher. Nolan Ryan’s record seven career no-hitters are more than twice as many as any other pitcher, with the exception of Dodgers’ great Sandy Koufax, who tossed four.
Verlander’s no-hitter on Sept. 1, 2019 was his third, tying him with Cy Young, the Indians’ Bob Feller, and the Cubs’ Larry Corcoran (who pitched in the 1880s) for third place all-time.
Twenty-nine pitchers have thrown two, with four active pitchers each having recorded two no-no’s: Mike Fiers, Max Scherzer, Homer Bailey, and Jake Arrieta. Former Giants’ right-hander Tim Lincecum also has two no-hitters, and even though he is not officially retired as of this writing, he has not pitched in the majors in years.
With all of the active pitchers that hold multiple no-hitters now in their mid- to late-30s, the odds are stacked significantly against catching, let alone passing, Ryan.
Most Consecutive Complete Games – Jack Taylor, 39
The Cardinals’ bullpen could count on taking the day off when Jack Taylor pitched.
In 1904, the right-hander completed every one of the 39 games he started. For his career, he finished all but eight of the 287 games he opened. In contrast, there were just 44 complete games total in MLB in 2019, two more than for all of 2018, according to baseball-reference.com.
The average length of a starting pitcher’s outing has been decreasing for years. In 2019, it was 5.2 innings. Last season it was 4.7, the shortest in MLB history. At that rate, nobody’s touching Taylor’s record 39 complete games.
Of course, there are other records that seem insurmountable, among them: Nolan Ryan, 5,714 career strikeouts; Rickey Henderson, 1,406 career stolen bases; Hack Wilson, 191 RBI in a season; “Old Hoss” Radbourn, 59 wins in a season; Pete Rose, 4,256 career hits; and Chief Wilson, 36 triples in a season.
But, we’ll stick with the 10 detailed above as the safest MLB records.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.
With his 2131st consecutive game played, Cal Ripken replaced Lou Gehrig as baseball’s Ironman. (Photo/Denver Post)