Monday, August 10, may well have been the most important day of the entire 1981 baseball season. This was the day that regular season play would resume after a two-month players strike had wiped out more than one-third of the schedule. Furthermore, in Philadelphia that night, Pete Rose would become the all-time National League hits leader, surpassing Stan Musial. In retrospect, one more event makes the date significant, for that was the night that a 21-year-old from Aberdeen, Maryland, would make his major-league debut with his hometown Baltimore Orioles. Cal Ripken Jr. had been summoned from Rochester to bolster the Birds’ roster in their bid to take the second-half American League East crown, the owners having split the season because of the strike.
Ripken had ascended through the Oriole system rapidly since his signing in 1978, and was batting .288 with 23 home runs in 114 games with the Red Wings when he was recalled.
The roster move, which also involved the promotion of left-hander Jeff Schneider and the demotion of utility infielder Wayne Krenchicki and left-hander Steve Luebber, was the lead sports story in the August 9 edition of the Evening Sun,1 a story that included speculation that incumbent third baseman Doug DeCinces would be moved to left field.2 The next day, the lead story in the Evening Sun sports section detailed the fact that Cal’s father, Orioles coach Cal Ripken Sr., “drove his oldest son to work.”3 When father and son arrived at Memorial Stadium, Dad found his uniform hanging on some nails and his son’s uniform inside Cal Sr.’s locker. Longtime Orioles clubhouse man Jimmy Tyler pulled this prank, and it was he who assigned Cal Jr. number 8.4
The Orioles resumed the second half on an exceedingly hot night5 against the Kansas City Royals, the reigning American League champs who when the strike began were 10 games under .500. If any in the crowd of 19,850 were disappointed that Cal didn’t start, they were certainly compensated with an exciting extra-inning contest. The Royals threatened in the first inning when Willie Wilson singled and stole second. Baltimore starter Dennis Martinez walked Hal McRae, but picked him off first. George Brett then lifted a looping fly ball to left on which left fielder Gary Roenicke made a sliding catch, a play that manager Earl Weaver would later label a “game-saver.”6 Martinez retired Willie Aikens for the final out of the inning, escaping the jam.
After setting down the first two hitters in the Baltimore half of the first, Royals starter Dennis Leonard surrendered back-to-back home runs to Ken Singleton and Eddie Murray for a 2-0 Orioles lead. A two-run, two-out home run by the Royals’ Amos Otis off Martinez in the fourth tied the score, and at this point, the pitchers truly took command. Leonard, who surrendered no hits after the Murray homer, was replaced by rookie southpaw Mike Jones to start the sixth. Jones yielded only two walks, the second of which was to Al Bumbry leading off the bottom of the ninth. Jones was replaced by relief ace Dan Quisenberry. After Rich Dauer sacrificed Bumbry to second, Quisenberry intentionally walked Singleton, then retired Murray and John Lowenstein (pinch-hitting for designated hitter Benny Ayala). Quisenberry retired the side in order in the 10th and 11th, meaning that the three Kansas City pitchers had thrown 10? innings of no-hit ball from the last out of the first through the 11th inning.
The Orioles hurlers were equally effective. Sammy Stewart, who had come on for Martinez to begin the eighth, gave up only one hit in three innings. But the Royals’ John Wathan opened the top of the 12th with a single off Stewart, and after U.L. Washington popped up a bunt attempt, Willie Wilson singled Wathan to second. Stewart got McRae to fly out to Bumbry in center field for the second out, and Weaver brought in the left-handed Tippy Martinez to face Brett. Martinez slipped a called third strike past the future Hall of Famer.
Singleton led off the bottom of the 12th with a double to left off right-hander Renie Martin, whom Royals skipper Jim Frey had summoned to begin the 12th. This was Baltimore’s first hit since the first inning. The obvious move was to pinch-run for Singleton, who still ranks as one of the slowest Orioles of all time, but Ayala, Lowenstein, and Lenn Sakata, all decent runners, had already entered the game. While never speedy, Cal Ripken was certainly faster than Singleton, so the rookie was sent in to pinch-run. Martin intentionally walked Murray to set up a potential double play, but Lowenstein foiled that strategy when he laced a 3-and-2 pitch down the right-field line, scoring Ripken and netting the win for the Birds.
As it turned out, Ripken contributed more to the victory than simply scoring the winning run. In a post-game interview, John Lowenstein noted that he used one of Ripken’s bats for the game-winning hit. “They worked well in Rochester,” he said.7
Ripken was used sparingly the rest of the 1981 season, collecting only five hits in 39 at-bats and pinch-running several more times. The Orioles, despite finishing the season with fewer losses than any other team in the American League East, were shut out of the playoffs by the split-season format. The Royals took the second-half crown in the American League West, but were swept in the Division Series by the first-half champion Oakland A’s.
While Ripken’s first year in the big leagues was far from spectacular, the groundwork was laid. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 1982 while leading the Birds to within a game of the AL East crown, and was named Most Valuable Player the following season while leading Baltimore to a world championship. Ultimately, Ripken played in a record 2,632 consecutive games and won election to the Hall of Fame after a 21-year career.
Cal Ripken Jr. notoriously employed numerous hitting stances in the course of his career. Tucked away in an “Orioles Notes” column that appeared on page C14 of the Evening Sun’s sports section of August 9, 1981, is the following: “Ralph Rowe, the Orioles’ batting coach, said that Ripken stands out from most hitters because ‘he can get into any stance or position at the plate and feel comfortable. … Sometimes players don’t make adjustments at the plate. Maybe good hitters like young Cal are just born.’”8
Even more prescient was this: “Rowe is also impressed by Ripken’s durability all along the line in the minors. ‘I don’t think he missed an inning at Rochester and he played every game at Charlotte. If he stays healthy, I’m not worried.’”9
Ralph Rowe never had to worry.
In addition to the sources cited in the notes, baseball-reference.com proved to be a valuable resource.
1 Bill Free, “Birds call up Ripken, Schneider,” Evening Sun, Baltimore, August 9, 1981, C1, C14.
2 DeCinces, a solid third baseman, had the misfortune of replacing Brooks Robinson and being replaced by Ripken. DeCinces was traded, along with Jeff Schneider, in January 1982 to the California Angels for Dan Ford. This was done in part to make room for Ripken at third, although manager Weaver would soon shift Ripken to shortstop.
3 Jim Henneman, “Orioles hope to get mileage from car-pooling by Ripkens,” Evening Sun, August 10, 1981, C1.
4 Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Bryan, The Only Way I Know (New York: Viking, 1997), 73. Ripken states that he did not request any particular number and that he never wore number 8 in the minors.
5 It was 88 degrees at game time, 7:35 P.M.
6 Jim Henneman, “Rest of season business as usual for Orioles,” the Evening Sun, August 11, 1981, E1.
8 “Palmer says strike hurt Krenchicki,” the Evening Sun, August 9, 1981, C14.