When Violet Roberta Gross married Cal Ripken Sr. in 1957 it was a lifetime commitment, but she had no idea what else she had signed up for.
When she passed away Feb. 26, one day before her 83rd birthday, pretty much the entire baseball world and the Maryland community knew Vi Ripken’s story.
One of the couple’s four children, Cal Ripken, Jr. set an all-time record by playing 2,632 straight games and earned a plaque in baseball’s Hall of Fame, but that is almost an afterthought in the life of a very remarkable woman.
When it became obvious early on that Cal Sr. would become what is known in the trade as a “baseball lifer,” Vi had the perfect answer for that challenge. She became one, too. Believe me, there was no better trouper than “Mrs. Rip.”
Make no mistake about this — there have been many like Cal Sr. who have earned that “lifer” badge of honor, but there have been few, if any, who did it Mrs. Rip’s way. She was there every step of the way — from Kennewick (the city in Washington the state, not a community in D.C.), to Pensacola, Fla., Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, Appleton, Wis., Asheville, N.C., Elmira and Rochester, N.Y., and other points in between.
Fittingly for the residents of Aberdeen, Md., a popular stop along the way was Aberdeen, S.D., a mere 1,432.7 miles away from home. I’ll get in a little trouble for this line — but anybody who knows the Ripken clan will understand: Try making that drive with 2-year-old Bill, the youngest of four children, in the car.
If she wanted to get an early hint about what life would be like in baseball, Vi probably could have gotten an idea from Walter Youse, newly signed Orioles scout who made Cal Sr. his first signee.
“I don’t know if he’ll ever make the big leagues,” Youse said at the time, “but I know he’ll be a good organization man.”
That may well have been the most accurate scouting report of Youse’s career. Cal Sr. was 21 years old when he signed in 1956, the year before he began both his married and professional life — and taking Vi along for the journey of a lifetime.
By age 25, his playing career in limbo, Cal Sr. began his managing trek through the minor leagues. He didn’t go it alone, by any stretch of the imagination. To the extent it was possible, Vi and the children — Elly, Cal Jr., Fred and Bill — were along for the ride.
After stops in Phoenix, Ariz., Wilson, N.C., Pensacola, Fla., and Amarillo, Texas, Cal Sr. played at Fox Cities in 1960, when his manager was Earl Weaver.
“He had the best year of his career,” Weaver recalled many years later, after both had moved on to the big-league team, “but he fell off in the second half — right after Vi left to go home to have the baby.”
Without knowing the exact itinerary I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure Vi stayed long enough for Cal Sr. to help celebrate Elly’s first birthday on July 6 — before going home for the birth of “the baby,” Cal Jr., on Aug. 18. Fred was born a year later, with Bill joining the clan in 1964.
All told, Cal Sr. spent 19 years in the minor leagues in 14 different cities. That’s almost half of the 42 years he and Vi were married before his death in 1999.
It was a remarkable journey, with the family routinely spending countless summers in various towns around the country, often finding ways to get involved. And every step of the way, it was Vi, or “Mrs. Rip” as she was affectionately known, issuing the marching orders that kept everyone in step and everything in order — or at least as much in step or order as possible.
Asheville, N.C., was the last stop on the minor league managerial trail for Cal Sr., who spent a year scouting before joining the O’s coaching staff in 1976. Eddie Murray, Al Bumbry, Doug DeCinces and Rich Dauer were among those who played for Cal Sr. in Asheville. Also on the “roster” — Elly, who swept the bases in the fifth inning; Cal Jr., the bat boy; Fred, clubhouse boy, and Bill, the ball boy. When the Ripkens were in town it truly was a family affair.
She didn’t know she was marrying a “baseball lifer,” but Vi Ripken knew exactly what to do. She became one herself.
Much more than that, however, she was a true Matriarch for the Ripken family, and that was the title she most treasured.
Vi Ripken was a pillar of strength for a very strong family.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles