It has been said many times that records were made to be broken and over the past decades many records, once thought to be secure and unassailable, have fallen. For 34 years the Babe’s 60 “dingers” stood as the mark to which long ball hitters aspired. Recently, sluggers Maguire and Bonds eclipsed the almost unthinkable level of 70 or more in a single season. Similarly, Gehrig’s 2130 consecutive games played was another record that stood for more than six decades and was thought by many it would remain unchallenged. In fairness to the “Iron Horse,” however, one can only speculate on how many more consecutive games he may have played had he not been stricken with the deadly ALS disease.
Why have modern day athletes been able to surpass many records once thought to be beyond reach? I think there are three basic reasons.
Men are, by and large, bigger and stronger than they were 60 – 80 years ago. I recall as a teenager reading about the exploits of the Minneapolis Lakers’ George Mikan who was regarded as one of the giants in the N.B.A. At 6’11” George, if he were playing today, would be challenged by a plethora of seven plus foot behemoths on every team in the league. In virtually all sports, today’s athletes are bigger and stronger than the sports icons of yesteryear.
The second factor I believe is conditioning. Training and nutritional regimens are clearly superior today to what they were even 20 years ago. In addition, today’s top athletes often have personal trainers, sport’s medicine specialists and even psychologists to give them an edge over their competitors. I have a hard time imagining Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb or Red Grange divulging their innermost fears and insecurities to some guy in a lab coat before game time. There are some who would suggest, and with good reason, that performance enhancing steroids may also be a factor.
The third factor has to do with technology or, more specifically, equipment quality. Top golfers and tennis players used to play with wood clubs and racquets and they performed pretty well. Today, however, players at all levels have titanium and other space age metals to significantly increase the length of their drives and speed of their serves. If you doubt this claim applies to baseball, take a look at a 1920’s photo of the gloves used by such stars as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner or George Sisler and any doubts you may have had about equipment will quickly evaporate.
I have deliberately left out some records achieved during the infancy of the game and restricted my choices to players from the so-called “modern era” which I have arbitrarily defined as post World War One. It is perhaps worth mentioning, however, that Hugh Nicol of Cincinnati had 138 stolen bases in 1887 and that another Cincinnati player, pitcher Will White, had 75 complete games in 1879.
Despite these undeniable advantages; are there still records in baseball that are unlikely to ever be eclipsed? I think the answer is yes. I suggest the following feats will likely remain unchallenged for all time. They are not shown in any particular order or ranking.
- Cal Ripken’s 2632 consecutive games played
- Cy Young’s 511 career victories
- Joe Dimaggio’s 56 game hitting streak
- Pete Rose’s 4192 career hits
- Nolan Ryan’s 5714 career strikeouts
- Rogers Hornsby’s feat of hitting over .400 in three seasons
- Hack Wilson’s 191 RBI’s during the 1930 season
- Nolan Ryan’s 7 career no-hitters
- Johnny Vander Meer’s two consecutive no-hitters in 1938
- Rickey Henderson’s 1406 career stolen bases
My final addition to the list occurred in the 1971 season when four Baltimore Orioles’ pitchers (Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Pat Dobson and Mike Cuellar all posted 20 or more victories. I seriously doubt this feat will ever be duplicated although the 1920 Chicago White Sox also had four 20 game winners.
There are also other records I suspect are “relatively” secure and which I would bet (given even odds) will remain secure.
- Winning the league batting title in three different decades (George Brett)
- Two brothers, on the same team, combining for 49 wins in a single season. Dizzy and Paul Dean with the St. Louis Cardinals.
- Warren Spahn’s record of 347 wins by a “southpaw.”
- Ted Williams’ career on base percentage of .483.
There is one other feat, although not an official statistic, that I strongly suspect will never be duplicated but which is an excellent question to ask if you find yourself engaged in a game of baseball trivia. Which Hall of Fame member who amassed 3630 career hits had exactly the same number of hits in home games as he had in away games? Don’t know? The answer is Stan Musial.
I’m not suggesting my selections are infallible but I think this is an interesting cerebral exercise. I would encourage other baseball aficionados who read this piece to do one of the following.
Tell me you agree with some of my selections but not with others.
Add your choices that you think I have missed.
Tell me I should find some other productive way to occupy my leisure time.
Tell me you think I am “right on.”
Best regards and take Ted Williams’ advice and “wait for your pitch.”
Barry Mayhew, Ph.D.