To remind myself about the importance of work, I keep this clock on my desk with the batteries out so that it is always set to 9:20 PM.
Twenty years ago yesterday at 9:20 PM, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, play stopped and the banner on the B&O Warehouse switched from 2130 to 2131, creating what is (along with the last out of Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS) the greatest moment in modern baseball history: the certification that Cal Ripken had broken Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record.
If football is about going to war, with generals from the sidelines commanding their troops to seize land from the other team, baseball is about going to work, with everyone honing their specialized craft, with the front offices crunching the numbers, and with the players needing to perform with consistency, day in and day out, for over a hundred and fifty days a year.
That’s why Cal’s record is the most important in all of American sports: it’s just about a guy who went to work everyday. And not only that: it’s about a guy who went to work everyday with unmatched dignity and commitment; it’s about a guy who went to work everyday at the same factory in which his brother had gone to work; it’s about a guy who went to work everyday because he learned from his father that that’s the honorable thing to do.
And of course, the most important reason 2131 is America’s greatest sports record is because it’s not about Cal Ripken. It’s about the hundreds of millions of Americans who go to work every day in much harder jobs. Cal put it well himself: “[My fans] all had stories, they all had their own streaks, like working for a plant for 31 years and never missing a day. Whoa. Now that’s a streak. We should be celebrating those streaks. That’s work. I just played baseball.”
Laboring daily — going to work — is like breaking bread or praying or caring for the sick: it’s one of those basic and honorable practices that make us human. It takes us outside of ourselves. It brings us together. It has a grace and momentum of its own.
Without a strong Labor movement, calls to go to work everyday — to have our own streaks of committed Labor, like Cal’s — are perverse and cynical, the smarm of bosses misusing this sacred human practice to squeeze more out of us for their own private profit (and often, worse, have us smile while they fleece us).
Labor Day is about recognizing those people — like my grandpa Joe Gubbins, who was a Chicago union lawyer — who have struggled to make sure that this dignity of Labor — this American pride in going to work everyday, like Cal did — is not perverted by the greed of a few. It’s about building workplaces which empower people to go to work everyday with the secure knowledge that their Labor will be respected. It’s about building an economy where we can all go to work everyday and be proud of our Labor, because we had a hand in deciding what is done with it, because we had a hand in deciding in how it was treated, because we had a hand in deciding how it was rewarded. It’s about recognizing the centuries-long union struggle that gave us the weekend and compensation for injury; that gave us health and safety standards and sexual harassment protections; that gave us sick pay and an end to child labor; that gave us parental leave and the forty hour workweek.
I want to live in a country where we can talk about the dignity of going to work everyday without rolling our eyes; where streaks like Cal’s and streaks like that of his fan at the plant are both respected: not just with pats on the back, but with serious power and serious paychecks. Our American Labor Movement — and the more democratic workplaces and fairer economy that have come with it — has brought us much closer to that country than we could have ever imagined a century ago. Think of how much closer we will be if we keep supporting it, if we keep building it, if we have the commitment and dignity to ensure we’re not going to be the generation that breaks its magnificent streak.