The Iron Man In Baseball

Cal Ripken Jr's. streak is one that will likely never be broken. (via Hettepop)

Cal Ripken Jr’s. streak is one that will likely never be broken. (via Hettepop)

Since the inception of professional sports, we have records of athletes participating in games and representing teams. In professional baseball, as early as 1916, players have compiled streaks of consecutive games played, the most significant of which are over 500 games. These “iron men” are recognized for an impressive endurance in appearing in a game with at least a completed at bat or half inning played defensively. So far, only 30 MLB players have formed a streak of over 500, several of whom are recognized in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Officially, MLB defines the games played streak as such:

A consecutive game playing streak shall be extended if the player plays one half inning on defense, or if he completes a time at bat by reaching base or being put out. A pinch running appearance only shall not extend the streak. If a player is ejected from a game by an umpire before he can comply with the requirements of this rule, his streak shall continue.” (Rule 10.23(c))

It’s no secret that baseball takes a toll on the body and injuries can happen on or off the field every day. Through a demanding season of 162 games played in 180 days, players put forth an unrivaled effort to show up every day and go to work. Imagine showing up at your job every day, 2,632 days in a row. It seems impossible, even if all you are expected to do is sit at a desk and work. Though baseball has an offseason, the physical and mental aspects of accomplishing a streak like that are truly extraordinary. It takes a durable person to accomplish what Cal Ripken Jr. did.

The Iron Man Begins

Perhaps one of the greatest records ever set, Ripken Jr. celebrates the title of The Iron Man due to his standing longest streak of consecutive games played in Major League Baseball. From 1981 to 2001, Cal Ripken Jr. played shortstop and third base for the Baltimore Orioles. More than 16 years of his 21-year playing career contributed to his amazing record. This accomplishment meant more to Ripken than just surpassing the seemingly unbreakable number Lou Gehrig put up, evidenced by Ripken continuing to play in every game for three seasons following the day he broke Gehrig’s record. That day, coincidentally, was 21 years and one day ago.

In a time when baseball was becoming increasingly cynical and corporate, Ripken reminded weary baseball fans what the game is really about. Demonstrating an ability to persevere through injury and illness, Ripken began an unintended quest to set arguably the most elusive record in sports.

It began ordinarily, as Ripken was a diligent player. Over time, he faced injury and fatigue that threatened his perfect starting record. Ankle problems arose in 1985 and 1992, but the worst of the injuries occurred during a brawl with the Seattle Mariners in 1993. Ripken suffered a sprained knee but he was able to finish the game and continue playing in the following games. A year later, his streak would be threatened once again when the Players Association went on strike in August of 1994. He was given permission to continue playing with replacement players in order to preserve his streak, but he declined. The integrity of professional baseball was more important to the baseball hero than to continue a personal accomplishment.

The Streak Comes to an End

It was time. Baseball has always been a team game.”

The morning of September 20th, 1998 was ordinary for most fans. Baltimore fans stirred with no more excitement than usual for the upcoming game, hindered only by the underlying suspicion that the Iron Man streak might soon come to an end. Everyone besides Ripken and those closest to him carried on in normal fashion. It wasn’t until Orioles manager Ray Miller submitted a lineup card without Ripken’s name on it that the importance of that game would go down in history. Neither injury nor illness was the cause of Ripken’s final game of the streak. It was Ripken’s choice to quietly withdraw himself from playing the last home game in the Orioles’ season.

While Ripken’s streak is the most impressive, let’s take a look at the rest of the top 10 Iron Men.

The Top 10

1. Cal Ripken, Jr. – 2,632

2. Lou Gehrig – 2,130

Simply put, Lou Gehrig is a hero, a legend, not only in baseball but also in the United States. He grew up paying a quarter to sit in left field for Giants games and never looked back. Gehrig became one of the greatest people to ever grace a baseball diamond, all the while setting records no one thought of as breakable. When he was given a chance to play professionally, he quickly proved he was a phenomenon. Even as a young player, Gehrig gave Babe Ruth a run for his money.

Gehrig’s streak ended as a result of the iconic disease that would ultimately end his life. This is arguably one of the most disheartening ends to a streak that baseball has seen, as with its ending, so came the end of Gehrig’s entire playing career. Gehrig died just two years after his streak concluded. Of course, Gehrig would be remembered for much more than just his games played.

3. Everett Scott – 1,307

Though he pitched in high school, Lewis Everett Scott was a professional shortstop for a number of teams including the Yankees and Red Sox in the early 1900s. Not only was he a fine baseball player, but he was also an accomplished bowler and author of a children’s book.

Scott held the MLB record for consecutive games played from the time his streak ended in 1925 up until Gehrig surpassed it. He faced criticism for his streak toward the end, as many players have. He missed the opportunity to extend his streak when his manager benched him in favor of another player, Paul “Pee Wee” Wanniger, reportedly due to reorganization in the Yankees lineup. The end of his streak signified the beginning of his declining interest in baseball, especially since Scott’s bowling and billiards establishment in Indiana was successful. Two days following Scott’s last game with the Yankees, Gehrig began his streak.

4. Steve Garvey – 1,207

Unlike Ripken, Steve Garvey made it clear that he was after the Iron Man streak as the first baseman for the Dodgers and Padres. He set out to challenge Gehrig’s record, but was unsuccessful on account of an injury. In 1983, he slid into home and suffered damage to his hand that barred him from extending his streak.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

5. Miguel Tejada – 1,152

Miguel Tejada is the only player in the top 10 to have begun a streak in this millennium, beginning June 2, 2000, and ending June 21, 2007. Tejada played in the majors for 16 years, during which he accumulated 307 home runs and compiled a .791 OPS. The unfortunate conclusion of this streak is credited to a broken wrist caused by a hit by pitch.

6. Billy Williams – 1,117

Hall of Famer Billy Williams was always cool, calm, and collected – possibly one of the reasons he enjoyed such a lengthy streak of games played while facing the issue of racism that plagued the country as a whole, and baseball in particular. Besides the streak, the Chicago Cubs star exhibited something else special: his swing. Though he struggled defensively as a left fielder and first baseman, he was known as “Sweet Swingin’ Billy.” He had a lefty swing that Willie Stargell, an opponent of Williams’, described as poetry in motion. Like Ripken, the end of Williams streak in 1970 came as an elective day off and a relief.

7. Joe Sewell – 1,103

Joe Sewell began his career with the Indians under tragic circumstances. Cleveland purchased his contract following a death and a pulled muscle in their two shortstops. Sewell would go on to have a celebrated hitting career. He kept his batting average above .300 from 1921 until 1930, with the exception of hitting .299 in 1922. Close enough, don’t you think?

When his streak ended, it was second in longevity only to Scott. Sewell was also the second major leaguer to compile a 1,000-game streak. He finished his career at age 34 after playing shortstop and third base for the Indians and Yankees and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

8. Stan Musial – 895

As Vin Scully put it, Stan “The Man” Musial was good enough to take your breath away. Musial played for the Cardinals from 1941 to 1963. He celebrated several ups and downs with the Cardinals organization, playing through the Jackie Robinson era and the integration of baseball. His best day of baseball came on May 2, 1954, when he went 4-for-4 with three home runs in the first game–one of which was a game winner–and then 2-for-4 with two home runs in the second. Those games were a microcosm of his career. Unfortunately, as he swung for a pitch during his 896th straight game, he chipped a bone and tore a muscle, ending his streak.

9. Eddie Yost – 838

Eddie Yost was a baseball player, a teacher, and an advocate for player rights. He had an uncanny ability to draw walks, which he himself attributed to his good eye and crouched hitting position. That crouch resulted in a smaller strike zone in an age of rising fastball pitchers. His streak began in 1949 with the Washington Senators. It would end 838 games later thanks to tonsillitis. At the time, it was the fourth longest in history as well as the longest streak since Gehrig. He still ranks 10th all time in walks.

10. Gus Suhr – 822

A native of California, Gus Suhr played in the major leagues for 10 years, from 1930 to 1940. He hit .279/.368/.428 with a .796 OPS.

Ripken and Gehrig both have an almost transcendent, magical quality that indicates just how special the game of baseball can be. Ripken said, to him, the streak doesn’t seem like much. He was just doing what he was getting paid to do. And, to the average person, there really isn’t much to being present for work, but these players have done so much more in setting records like the ones they have set. With these numbers attached to them comes an intense respect for their passion and work ethic. Ripken’s streak shows how baseball let the world in on something greater, something accessible to everyone, but achievable for only one man.

The Iron Man Streak Today

Lately, there have not been many notable streaks. None have even come close to Gehrig or Ripken in years, but some have tried. Freddie Freeman held a streak of 234 games through three seasons, but he was forced to sit out in June of 2015 due to a wrist injury. One of the most notable players to break a 500-game streak in recent years is Prince Fielder.

Fielder had a great career in the major leagues and was respected for his work ethic and ambitious attitude. After he announced his retirement, Ryan Braun said the following:

I think he played the game as hard and competed as hard as anybody I ever had on my team. He’s a guy who never wanted to come out of any game, played through so many injuries, wanted to play every inning of every game.”

This attitude, while remarkable, may have had an unintended consequence of wearing Fielder down earlier than would have been forecasted. It is something special to approach the game of baseball as Ripken, Gehrig, and Fielder do, but it also ultimately mightbe harmful to the body.

Beyond Freeman and Fielder, not many seem to be concerned with interesting records like this anymore. Ripken and Gehrig were magical, but baseball is overcome by the new technologies like Statcast and instant replay. Advanced statistics and advance scouting have become the focus much more so than playing every single day. Baseball is increasingly a numbers game, but we still must look back on something greater than a number and realize the heart and humanity behind it.

Is the Iron Man Streak unbreakable?

Besides the caveat of being human, there is a controversial element to whether or not Ripken’s streak will ever be broken. Over the years, Ripken and his managers faced criticism for the perceived obsession of the streak. Ripken made it clear he was not playing every game just for the streak, yet fans and critics of baseball looked on with a skeptical eye. Other players have faced the same transition, where the subject of attention turns from how long the streak will go to what (negative) sacrifices are being made to keep the streak alive.

As the number of consecutive games played grows, the question becomes, what happens if the player’s performance wanes? Ripken certainly earned his place in the lineup, if not purely as a result of work ethic. But, in the age of celebrity players and an inevitable $500 million contract, players likely won’t play through the pain even if they have a work ethic similar to Ripken’s. Rest days are imperative, and with the increasing value of a player’s health, the accolade may not be worth the risk.

Ignoring the many obstacles that make the Iron Man title so elusive, there might be hope for a player wishing to play 2,633 games in a row. No one expected a player to surpass Gehrig’s record that stood for over half a century before it finally was broken. Ripken did, and upon breaking the record claimed that if he could do it, someone else could too. We will have to wait and see.

References & Resources

Rachel studies Applied Statistics at the University of Virginia and works as a student manager for their baseball program. She also writes for Beyond the Box Score and has written for the Cavalier Daily.
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6 years ago

I enjoyed this, and have wondered if the Iron Man streak really is the unbeatable record today. The fact that third place is HALF of the record really tells you how hard it is– as the author points out, not just from a physical standpoint, but all the other things that come with it. And I didn’t realize the “ejection exception” to baseball’s streak rule.

Also, because there’s a Joe Sewell reference here I’m obligated to point out that he had over 600 plate appearances in 1933 and struck out…four times.

6 years ago
Reply to  crew87

In addition to third place being half the record, I think one of the other crazy aspects of the streak is that only 36 players even played >2632 games in their career. It’s incredibly difficult to be good enough and healthy enough for that many years, even before considering playing each game consecutively.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago

In fact, Gehrig’s streak is sort of tainted. In, I believe 1934, he was hurt or sick, was put in the lineup at leadoff (the game was on the road), took his at bat, thereby keeping the streak alive, and did not play in the field. I’m not aware of Ripken doing anything like that so, arguably, Ripken’s streak is more impressive, not to mention the fact that he played a much more physically demanding position.

“This is arguably one of the most disheartening ends to a streak that baseball has seen, as with its ending, so came the end of Gehrig’s entire playing career.”

I don’t think there is really much argument about this.

Josh Utterback
6 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Ripken never took an at-bat then left with the purpose of extending his streak. But on two different occasions he was ejected in the first inning after striking out. In both cases he had already complied with Rule 10.23(c) regardless of the ejection.

Making Ripken’s record even more impressive is that for almost five years of the streak he played every single INNING. Over the course of the entire streak he played over 95% of the innings.

. Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

So what? What is the difference between someone playing 1000 consecutive games and someone else playing 999 games with a day off thrown in. Nothing. This record is meaningless. In fact, it is a record that anyone can attain with managerial gimmickry. Ask yourself: what would be the qualitative difference between Ripken’s career performance if took a day off during his streak versus what actually happened? Again, nothing.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago

I sort of agree with you, but I think you have to give these guys some credit for being able to go out there every day. You could just as easily say, what’s the big deal about DiMaggio’s hitting streak?
Several times he continued the streak with a hit in his last at bat, which may have been meaningless and, in at least one game, he bunted for a hit to continue the streak. Streaks are sort of inherently bogus; you can have a hitting streak and hit .250.

Frankly, any kind of statistical record is open to that kind of criticism. What’s the difference between hitting .400 and .399? What’s the difference between hitting 73 home runs rather than 72 (or 61 rather than 60). Records in general are sort of meaningless. Pete Rose got more hits than Ty Cobb. Big deal. Was he a better player?

And I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the iron man streak as something “anyone can attain with managerial gimmickry.” Yes, there was some gimmickry involved with Gehrig’s streak, but if it was so easy, why hasn’t it been done more? It obviously isn’t easy to play every day. Whether or not the streak has any real meaning from a performance standpoint is a different issue. A lot of people thought that Ripken might have been better off taking a day or two off at times that he was struggling.

Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago

A streak that allows for 1-AB games is gimmicky. Playing every inning of every game for several years is pretty striking, as an achievement, even if it wasn’t necessarily the best for the team.

Baseball has its gimmicks that are now traditions. A no-hitter with three walks is gimmicky. Hitting for the cycle. The pitcher win for a reliever. It’s a game, why not a game laid on top of the game.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  Jetsy Extrano

To me, gimmicky is something that is designed purposely to create an artificial event; for example, a manager manipulating the lineup to continue a consecutive games streak.. A no-hitter with three walks (or 10 walks) is not gimmicky; it’s a no -hitter. Hitting for a cycle is not gimmicky; it’s something that really happens, unless the guy needing a double, for example, purposely stopped at second base. You can argue about how significant they are-is hitting for a cycle better than hitting four home runs? But, to me, it’s not gimmicky. It’s more of an oddity.

Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Oddity vs. gimmick is a fair distinction. I think of it as a gimmick not in the play on the field, but in how we look at it. The player got 1B 2B 3B HR, nothing artificial about that in itself, just in caring about it as “a natural cycle”.

A gimmick in the same sense as “batting average against the Orioles for his career” is a gimmick stat.

6 years ago

It would be cool to see what notable players with long careers had the shortest streaks as their longest ones. Meaning, say a guy played for ten years without ever playing fifteen games in a row.

6 years ago

Great article. It made me ask: What is the longest consecutive games streak for a catcher? Just wondered since catchers virtually never play a full 162 or 154 games in a season.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  Dick

I would bet it’s not more than 100 games, at most.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dick
John G.
6 years ago

Shattering a record that is all about durability, overcoming minor injuries and late-season fatigue? While playing during the PED Era, with a key element of PEDs being that PEDs unfairly helped some players to play through injuries and stay sharp during the late summer grinds as well as to remain playing at high levels at older ages? On a franchise with several other players reportedly linked to PEDs? Hmmmm….

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  John G.

Do we really need to go there?