Cal Ripken:
Modern-Day Lindbergh or Media Myth?

Iron Man Ripken and Lucky Lindy

"Time and space is the myth of the modern world," poet Hart Crane once wrote, "and it is interesting to see how any victory in the field is heralded by the mass of humanity" (Trachtenberg, 1979, p. 157). The topic might have been Cal Ripken Jr., except the Brooklyn Bridge-obsessed oracle wrote it in a letter to his father on June 21, 1927, one month after Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic. "In a way my Bridge is a manifestation of the same general subject," Crane continued. "Maybe I'm just a little jealous of Lindy!"

John William Ward also sounds a bit jealous in parts of his watershed myth-symbol essay on "The Meaning of Lindbergh's Flight" (1958). But what struck me, reading Ward's words one month after Ripken's record-breaking night, were all the similarities between Americans' reaction to Lindbergh's and Ripken's feats. Both were feted with homecoming parades, presidential audiences and public adoration. But even more striking was the similarity in the media reports about them. According to Ward, the newspapers said Lindbergh had "fired the imagination of mankind," accomplished the record "by his indomitable will alone" and "served as a metaphor." All of these things could be, and were, said about Ripken, too. The reporters also could have been referring to Ripken when they called Lindbergh a "lone eagle" and "tall young man (who) raised up and let us see the potentialities of the human spirit." There's also an unmistakable echo in the 1927 newspaper accounts that said Lindbergh stood "in striking contrast with the sordid unhallowed themes that have for months steeped the imaginations and thinking of the people," and that "there is good reason why people should hail Lindbergh and give him honor. He stands out in a grubby world as an inspiration."

There's even resonance in the Chicago Tribune cartoon included with Ward's essay, which shows Mother Earth hugging an embarrassed Lindbergh and proclaiming, "I haven't been so thrilled since the Armistice." The last time before Ripken's record-breaking night that America felt so good was the celebration marking the end of the Persian Gulf war. To paraphrase Ward only slightly, Ripken's record evoked "a mass ritual in which America celebrated itself more than it celebrated (Ripken. Ripken's night) was the occasion of a public act of regeneration in which the nation momentarily rededicated itself to something, the loss of which was keenly felt."

But what was the loss so keenly felt? For the America of 1927 -- and 1958 -- it was the loss of innocence, Ward said. People realized, perhaps subconsciously, that acts of individual freedom and power such as Lindbergh's -- or Ripken's -- were becoming rarer and rarer in a machine-driven industrial world where cooperative effort was the linchpin of progress. That dichotomy still resonates with us in 1995, but I believe the reaction to Ripken's record also reflects our uneasiness with moving from the value-laden modern world to a value-less postmodern era. Cal Ripken Sr. gave his oldest son the athletic genes -- not to mention the sky-blue eyes -- to become a romantic hero, and he gave him the baseball training to become a modernist hero. That was enough, for at least 22 minutes, to let people forget about the postmodern strike that almost aborted Cal's streak, the celebrity murder trial that threatened to spark riots, and the budget battles that would shutter our government. For 22 minutes, in the middle of a ball game, amid a new old- fashioned ball park, people finally had a palatable answer to the plaint, "Is nothing sacred anymore?" (Mihoces, 1995) Baseball, myths and symbols are still sacred, at least in the media.

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