Infielder Billy Ripken attacked the game of baseball with reckless abandon and paid the price, sustaining an inordinate number of injuries during his career. He never changed his all-out, hustling style of play, earning the reputation of a player who left it all on the field.
The Ripkens were a baseball family. Bill’s father, Cal Ripken Sr., was a solid minor league player and one of the most valued and respected managers/coaching instructors in the Baltimore Orioles organization. Two of Billy’s uncles were also outstanding ball players in the semi-professional Susquehanna League. One of these uncles, Bill’s namesake, had a successful yet brief career in the Brooklyn Dodgers minor league chain.
Bill’s older brother Cal Jr. was a Hall of Fame shortstop and is now known as the most durable player in the history of major league baseball. The younger Ripken would turn out to be one of the best defensive second baseman that ever donned an Oriole uniform.
Unlike his brother, who was ensconced in the starting lineup, Billy had to compete for a roster spot for most of his 12-year major league career. When asked about fighting for a job each season Billy said, “There were times I went to spring training as a non-roster player and I was the 28th or 29th on the depth chart. But I felt strongly that if I went there and showed what I could do, I’d come out on the top 25 and the roster.”
When asked to compare the two brothers, baseball executive John Hart, who managed the younger Ripken in the minors, told sports writer Jim Henneman in an August 31,1995, interview with the Baltimore Sun “Bill and Cal are similar in that they are both extremely intelligent players, but you really can’t compare them. Cal is like the strong power forward and Billy is like a scrappy point guard. As for Bill’s injuries, some of it is just bad luck. The rest of it is the way he plays--diving all over the place.”
In a subsequent interview with ESPN.com, Hart offered the following opinion on the younger Ripken: “He was a big time gamer who played the game the right way. Cal Sr. is as proud of Billy as he is of Cal Jr. Billy was just like him.” Hart went on to say, “Bill was vastly underrated for his versatility, defensive skills and knowledge of the game.”
William Oliver Ripken was born in Havre de Grace, Maryland, on December 16, 1964. He was the youngest of four children born to the former Violet Gross and Calvin Ripken Sr.
Billy played baseball at Aberdeen High School and was an 11th round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in the 1982 amateur draft. He started his professional career at shortstop with Bluefield in the Appalachian League. During his first few years in the minors he showed his versatility by playing every position in the infield except first base. Unfortunately, Billy was plagued by a myriad of nagging injuries and couldn’t stay healthy long enough to make an impression on the Baltimore front office.
That all changed when he switched over to second base at the beginning of the 1986 season. Playing with Double A Charlotte, Billy had his best offensive year as a pro up to that point, hitting .268 with five home runs and 62 RBIs. At second base, he led the loop in five defensive categories and was named to the Southern League All-Star team. These accomplishments earned him an invitation to the Orioles major league camp in 1987.
At the start of spring training Cal Ripken Sr., who was now managing the Orioles, commented, “I never got to see him play much. He’s shown me some things this spring that made me say darn I did not know he could do that. He’s shown me that he is a very sound basic fundamental player.”i
On March 23, 1987, after playing extremely well in camp, Bill was optioned to the Triple- A Rochester Red Wings when the Orioles made their first cuts. When asked about being sent back to the minors, Billy told a reporter, “Sure it’s a disappointment when you get sent down from a major league club. But you realize that it’s best that you go out and play…. put on a uniform and go to work.”
Billy meant what he said and after reporting to the Rochester team continued to play well. On July 11, 1987, the Orioles released veteran infielder Rick Burleson and called up Billy up to the major league club. Ripken was hitting .286 at the time, which included a recent 11-for-12 tear at the plate. He also connected for eight consecutive hits before his promotion.
When asked by Gordon Beard of the Associated Press what it would be like to be the first big league manager to have two of his sons on the same team, Cal Sr. replied, “I don’t think about that… I think about the ballplayers. I’m happy for any young kid going to the big leagues. I spent a lot of time down there, [13 years as minor league manager] and I was just as thrilled to send them as they were to go.”ii
With the addition of the younger Ripken, Baltimore proceeded to win eleven of their next twelve games. Billy was full of enthusiasm, and his youthful exuberance put some life into the low-key Baltimore clubhouse. Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks simply said, “To us, he was a breath of fresh air.”
When Bill and Cal teamed up in the middle of the Oriole infield, they became the fourth set of brothers to form a double play combination in the major leagues.iii The Ripken duo would eventually take part in 296 twin killings from 1987 through 1992.
Billy’s first major league hit was a double off the left field wall against Kansas City’s Charlie Liebrandt on July 16. Three days later, he belted his first major league home run, off the Royals’ Bud Black. Billy’s season ended on September 15 when he took a misstep over an Astroturf seam while fielding a groundball at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium and tore the lateral ligament in his right ankle.
Bill played 58 games for Baltimore that year, finishing the season with a .308 batting average. Defensively, he made only three errors at second base in 298 chances. Ripken didn’t make his first error until his 26th game, the same night he handled 14 other chances flawlessly.
When he reported to the Orioles in the spring of 1988, Billy told Marty Klinkenberg of the Miami News, “I’m not trying to fill the shoes of my brother. He’s an established major league star. I just want to be an established major league player, period. This year my goals are to the make the major league team and play every day.”
The Orioles started off the 1988 campaign with six straight losses, and Cal Ripken Sr. was let go as manager. Both Ripken siblings were taken aback by the abrupt firing of their father, but continued to go about their business on and off the field as professionals.
Cal Sr. wore number 7 and after the firing, Billy changed his number from three to seven in honor of his Dad’s service to the team. When asked about the change, Bill replied, “Obviously, I was hurt by the whole thing. I just looked at Dad as being No. 7, and I really didn’t want anything going on during the course of the year and it just occurred to me that someone else could be given No.7, and I just didn’t like the thought very much. I just couldn’t bear to think about it at the time.”
On the day that the Orioles won their first game of the season after starting out 0-21, Billy was severely beaned by Chicago White Sox pitcher John Davis. With none out and a man on first, Ripken squared around to bunt and Davis’ pitch sailed in and hit him in the temple. He lay there motionless for a few moments and was eventually taken off the field on a stretcher. Never one to be sidelined long, Ripken returned to the Baltimore lineup three days later. Bill didn’t hit as well as he did in his first season, but defensively, he was solid, handling 761 chances while making only 12 errors and turning 110 double plays.
In spring training of the following year, Billy suffered a broken left hand after he was struck by a pitched ball. The injury caused him to miss the first two weeks of the 1989 campaign. A few months later, on August 23, Bill was put on the disabled list with a strained right shoulder, and veteran infielder Tim Hulett was called up to replace him. Ripken returned to the Baltimore lineup on September 7. Bill hit .239 that season, and his .985 fielding percentage was the third highest of all American League second basemen.
That same year, Ripken’s 1989 Fleer baseball card was issued, and inscribed on the bottom of the knob of the bat he was holding was a glaring two-word expletive. Ripken explained in subsequent interviews with the media that he had written on one of his practice bats to distinguish it from his game bats. While hastily preparing to have his photograph taken for his Fleer baseball card, Billy grabbed the wrong bat by mistake. Fleer eventually performed damage control by reissuing a number of different variations of the card with the white-out version being the most sought-after by collectors.
Bill played in 129 games for the Orioles in 1990 but missed most of August with a stress fracture in his right foot. The injury occurred when he had to retreat back to second base on a failed sacrifice bunt attempt by Brady Anderson. He rejoined the team on August 21. Infielder Jeff McKnight was sent down to triple A Rochester to make room for Ripken on the Orioles roster. On September 15, Billy and brother Cal hit home runs off Toronto pitcher David Wells in the same inning. The two would accomplish this same feat six years later on May 28,1996, against the Seattle Mariners’ Scott Davisson in the ninth inning of an Orioles win. Cal hit three that day and drove in eight runs; Bill hit a solo shot. Davisson played his last game two days later.
Billy led the Orioles with a .291 batting average in 1990 while tying his brother Cal for the most doubles (28) on the ballclub. An outstanding bunter and unselfish player, Bill led the American League with 17 sacrifices.
The Ripken brothers made a formidable double play combination for the Birds, executing 296 twin killings from 1987 through 1992. Bill also led all American League second basemen in fielding percentage in 1992.
In December of 1992, the Orioles released Ripken when they acquired free agent second baseman Harold Reynolds. Asked about the move Baltimore general manager Roland Hemond replied, “We felt it would be difficult for Billy to be confronted with the signing of Harold Reynolds. Ripken has difficulty at not playing. It really eats at him. He’s become accustomed to playing every day.”
Ripken found out about the release from his agent, Ron Shapiro. In an interview with WMAR-TV in Baltimore, Billy said he was more shocked than bitter about his release.
“I’ve been hearing things for a long time now that we needed another second baseman and I guess it finally caught up. Who knows? I might get bitter later. It’s just one of those things. You realize that baseball is just a business. I really realize that at this point in time.”
In late January of 1993, Texas Rangers starting second baseman Jeff Frye injured his right knee while jogging. A short time later, Texas general manager John Hart contacted Billy about joining the team. Ripken eventually signed a minor league contract with the club, which included an invitation to attend the Rangers’ major league camp for spring training.
Billy made the Rangers team out of spring training, but injures plagued him for most of the season. He appeared in only 50 games while spending 87 days on the disabled list. Although he did not hit much (.189) his versatility allowed Rangers manager Kevin Kennedy the luxury of having a reliable utility man who could play every infield position.
The injury bug continued to haunt Bill in 1994, but he performed well when he was in the Rangers lineup, hitting .309 in 32 games. At the end of the season, Texas designated Ripken and catcher Junior Ortiz for assignment to the minor leagues. Both players declined the offer, choosing to test the free agent market instead.
In March 1995, Bill signed a contract to play shortstop for the Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo. The Indians management made it clear that they were happy with Omar Vizquel at shortstop and Carlos Baerga at second base in addition to having Alvaro Espinoza as their utility man. There would be no chance of making the big league roster; Ripken was strictly covering them in case one of their infielders was injured.
Major league baseball was also in the midst of a strike at this time, and there was talk of starting the season with replacement players. Billy was absolutely not interested in that scenario. When asked by a reporter for the Associated Press about the possibility of crossing the picket line, Billy replied, “It’s a straight Triple A deal with no implications about being a replacement player. That’s the way I wanted it. I don’t feel guilty as far as playing in the minor leagues, nor do I think people look at me in a different way for doing it.”
Billy went on to have an outstanding year for Buffalo, playing 126 games at shortstop and four others at second base while hitting .292 with 34 doubles. His all-around fine play earned him a selection to the Triple-A All-Star team, which featured the best players from the highest level of the minor leagues.
The major league strike was eventually settled, and in September 1995 Bill was called up to the majors. He ended up playing in 8 games for the Indians, raking the ball for a lofty .412 batting average.
That same month Billy was in attendance at Camden Yards in Baltimore when his older brother Cal broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record.
In December 1995, the Baltimore front office, which was disappointed in the play of second baseman Bret Barberie, signed Billy to a one-year minor league deal.
Billy ended up making the major league club, earning his spot on the roster as the team’s utility man. In the middle of May, starting third baseman B.J.Surhoff went on the disabled list with a sprained ankle. At first, manager Davy Johnson considered moving Cal Ripken from shortstop over to third base. Johnson, choosing not to tamper with the infield continuity, decided to go with Billy Ripken at third instead. The younger Ripken was no stranger to the position, having played there during his first stint with Baltimore and more recently with Texas. Billy wound up playing 25 games at the hot corner for the Orioles, handling 41 chances without an error.
Baltimore chose not to resign Billy after the 1996 season, and on December 10 he joined back up with the Texas Rangers. Initially, Benji Gil won the shortstop job for the Rangers but by early June, Ripken had taken over the position.
Unfortunately, Billy suffered a herniated disc in his back while running the bases against Colorado and had to go on the disabled list. Texas called up infielder Hanley Frias from Triple A Oklahoma to take his place on the roster. Ripken played in 71 games for the Rangers in 1997, appearing at every infield position and hitting .276.
On December 16, Billy, who was now a free agent, signed a minor league deal with the Detroit Tigers and was invited to spring training as a non-roster player.
The following February, Tigers starting shortstop Devi Cruz broke his ankle playing winter ball. At that time, Detroit manager Buddy Bell informed the press that Billy would take over at shortstop until Cruz was ready to return to the lineup. Unfortunately, Billy injured his knee in late April and had to be placed on the disabled list. After a brief rehab with Toledo, the Tigers released him on July 20. By this time, Cruz had returned to the Detroit lineup, and the team had a number of other players who could play the infield if necessary.
Bill Ripken hung up his spikes for good at this time, finishing his big league career with a .247 batting average. Defensively, his .987 lifetime fielding percentage at second base places him 20th on the All-Time list.
The following spring, Cal Ripken Sr. died of lung cancer. Bill and Cal, along with other family members, started the philanthropic Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation in honor of their family’s beloved patriarch.
In 2002, Billy Ripken was elected into the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame.
In February of 2005, Bill and his brother Cal signed on with XM satellite radio to host a weekly baseball show. Billy later became a studio analyst for the MLB network.
When brother Cal was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, Billy spoke proudly of his former double play partner: “He did things at shortstop that would wow me every week. I don’t think people give him enough credit. He was big and he was long, but he did have range. To lead the league in total putouts and total chances, you can’t be a desert cactus.”
Billy currently remains heavily involved with the Ripken baseball camps and clinics. The brothers have also co-written two well-received instructional books on baseball. Among Bill’s many duties, he is the co-owner and executive vice- president of Ripken Baseball, which was founded in 1998. This sales and marketing company oversees all of the baseball activities of the family business, which include the Youth League tournaments that are held at the Ripken Stadium complex as well as their interests in the Aberdeen Iron Birds and the Augusta Green Jackets
In addition to his many commitments to Ripken Amateur Baseball, Ripken Management and Design, Ironclad Authentics and the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, Bill is now working as an analyst for Fox Baseball. On February 3, 1989, he married the former Candace Cauffmen. The Ripkens currently reside in Harford County, Maryland, and they have four children, Miranda, Anna, Reese and Jack.
A special thanks to Bill Haelig for his much appreciated assistance with this biography.
Acocella, Nick. “Tip Your Cap to Baseball’s Newest Iron Man.” ESPN Classic. November 19, 2003.
Crasnick, Jerry. ESPN MLB.com article “It Wasn’t Always Easy Being the Little Brother.” ESPN MLB.com. July 27, 2007.
Henneman, Jim. “Billy Ripken: Finally His Own Man.” Baseball Digest. July 1991.
Seidel, Jeff. Baltimore Orioles: Where Have You Gone? Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing LLC, 2006.
Ripkenbaseball.com “Growing the game of baseball the Ripken way”
i Cal Ripken Sr. was away from home during the summer months working as a manager and coach in the Baltimore organization and unable to attend many of his sons’ amateur games.
ii Only two other fathers managed their sons in the major leagues. The first was Connie Mack, whose son Earle played on the Philadelphia Athletics in 1910, 1911, and 1914. The other was Yogi Berra, who managed his son Dale on the 1984-85 New York Yankees.
iii Granny and Garvin Hamner, with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945, twins Johnny and Eddie O’Brien, with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1953 through 1958, along with Frank and Milt Bolling, with the Detroit Tigers in 1958, were the only other sibling double play combinations in major league history.