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September 7, 2010
As you fly through life on the sweet bird of youth, the wind blowing through your hair until you have no more, you tend to notice things that transpired that you may not have appreciated at the time. This life was one tied closely to the game of baseball, from the first moment of being overtaken by the smell of freshly roasted peanuts in the Polo Grounds, through the daydreams that come with playing in Little League, high school, and college all the way through being professionally involved as media.
The older you get, the more you begin to think back to those young days, time when baseball was king. It was, in your youth, a game played professionally only east of the Mississippi River, mostly north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was played by white men without exception and so much as the thought of a Japanese player, so close to the end of World War II, seemed impossible. Baseball was a game bathed in history and you were taught that there were some records that would never be broken, records attached to names that seemed magical from the past.
No one would hit more than Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs, not any more than anyone would ever strike out more batters than Walter Johnson had fanned. Ty Cobb was the most prolific hitter and base stealer there would ever be; no one would ever break his record of 4,189 hits or 96 steals in a season or 895 steals in a career, you were assured. This was a given. There were no debates about it, although, certainly, this was during the time when there was no talk radio.
But as you look back on it now, around that time, you wonder what it must have been like for someone who was born in 1880 to see, 65 years later, an atomic bomb wipe out an entire city. Anything was possible.
And so it was the other day that the thoughts of what I had lived through in the game of baseball, of how many unbreakable records proved to be breakable, of how the game’s face had be altered since childhood, even since covering my first major-league game professionally in 1966. By that time, of course, Jackie Robinson had changed the color of the game while the geography was changed not too long after, Horace Stoneham and Walter O’Malley taking their New York-based franchises to California.
It was interesting, perhaps, that the first game I did cover was the first played in the South, opening night in Atlanta, and that the first star player the Braves had there was Henry Aaron, an African-American in Georgia who would go on to break Ruth’s unbreakable career home-run record of 714, a number that was etched indelibly into the mind of any baseball fan. Spreading across the nation and into Canada, baseball changed its entire outlook upon itself, going to a playoff system that would have made Miller Huggins roll over in his grave, as if his Yankees had to win one or two series just to get to the World Series that was rightfully their heritage anyway.
Slowly the unbreakable records began to fall, turning the heroes of youth into far more human figures. Today it is difficult to find Ruth’s name in the record books, so many of his records have been dwarfed.
Sixty home runs? Roger Maris broke that back in ’61.
That opened the flood gate. No record was unbreakable, no feat impossible. This was Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier, Chuck Yeager crashing through the speed of sound.
Then along came the chemically-enriched home-run hitters of the 1990s, Mark McGwire taking the record to 70 and Barry Bands taking it to 73. Seventy-three!
Along the way, of course, Aaron got not only Ruth’s career home-run record, but his RBI record.
Cobb’s stolen-base records were shattered over and over, from Maury Wills to Lou Brock to, finally, Rickey Henderson, a throwback kind of player himself who would steal 1,406 bases in his career and 118 in the 1982 season. If he didn’t go in spikes high as we always pictured Cobb doing it, like Cobb he went in ahead of the throw from the catcher.
Poor, poor Cobb. Pete Rose came along and broke his career hit record by collecting the unheard of figure of 4,256. The record counts. Pete Rose doesn’t.
Next to fall was George Sisler’s record of 257 hits, set in 1920. It was broken by, of all people, the Japanese import, Ichiro Suzuki, which clearly established that our world had changed quite drastically over a lifetime.
Johnson, of course, was considered the all-time strikeout king when he retired with 3,509, but then along comes Nolan Ryan and no strikeout record was safe as he fanned 5,714.
But the most shocking record of all to fall was Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games played, a record that perhaps we should have known was vulnerable since Gehrig’s career ended prematurely due to his tragic disease.
Interestingly, though, there was much that survived this onslaught of records by athletes honed to a fine edge by modern training techniques, at times chemicals, and aided by a lengthened season.
No one, for example, has been able to crack the .400 mark that Ted Williams reached in 1941, while no National League player has hit .400 since Billy Terry put a .401 average together in the freakish year of 1930. That, of course, was the same year Hack Wilson set the single-season RBI record with 190, a figure that would inflate to 191 when baseball historian Jerome Holtzman found an overlooked RBI seven decades later.
While we are at present in the midst of a battle between Albert Pujols and Joey Votto over the Triple Crown in the NL, please note no one has accomplished that in the senior circuit since Joe Medwick in 1937.
If one were to say that the two most unbreakable records to survive from my youth to this era were Cy Young’s 511 career victories and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, he would get no argument from here, just don’t be so sure.