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September 7, 2010

Another Look

Unbreakable Records

by Bob Hertzel

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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.

Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bob's other articles. You can contact Bob by clicking here

27 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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4 saves in a World Series by John Wetteland. :-)

I know we're talking about the historical records that everyone knows like 511 wins by Cy Young, but two records that really will never be broken are Fernando Tatis' two grand slams in an inning (think about it - you'd need to bat around twice, bringing at least 4 batters to the plate 3 times in an inning; double bat-arounds are rare enough as is, I think it's about once a year where someone gets 3 at-bats in an inning, then you need to get a guy to hit three grandslams in said double bat-around, considering that hitting two home runs in an inning is rare enough).

The other is Cy Young's 313 losses. 511 wins could theoretically be broken by a Greg Maddux type on a high scoring offense for a team that's consistently good (essentially, Greg Maddux over 20 years on the Yankees). Quite improbable no doubt, but compare that to 313 losses - someone has to pitch long enough to compile that many losses, and considering how tough it is to get to 300 WINS...

Sep 07, 2010 04:19 AM
rating: 0

Didn't you hear? In an effort to increase revenues, Selig announced the World Series going to a best of 9 games. "We're honoring baseball's past" he said in the press conference.

Sep 07, 2010 10:25 AM
rating: 1

Joe Nuxhall's "youngest player to appear in a game" record of 15 years and 10 months is pretty safe under the current rules, because I believe you can't be signed as an international amateur until you're 16, and American players can't be drafted until they graduate from high school, so you'd need a player who graduates before high school before 16 and is also ready for the bigs.

Sep 09, 2010 22:26 PM
rating: 0
Nick Carter

Most consecutive no hitters by Johnny van der Meer is another tough one to break.

Sep 07, 2010 05:08 AM
rating: 2

Regarding back to back no hitters, it would take three to break the record. No chance.

Sep 08, 2010 19:38 PM
rating: 0

I don't know that 511 wins could be broken, since the modern game is so different for pitcher's workloads. If a pitcher won 20 games each year for 25 years they would still fall short, and its no longer possible to pitch as much as Cy did (he had seasons with 400+ IP and 40+ starts).
I think the other old-time pitching records could not be broken for the same reasons - Old Hoss Radburns 59 wins (1884) and Will White's 680 innings pitched (1879)
DiMaggio's streak is very, very unlikely to be broken, but there's nothing inherently impossible about it, but the game has evolved in such a way that the 19th century pitching records are no longer touchable.

Sep 07, 2010 05:20 AM
rating: 0

How 'bout Cy Young's career record for losses, 316?

Nolan Ryan has come closest with 292.

Even if a pitcher averaged 15 losses a season for 21 seasons, he would come up one short of Cy Young.

Sep 07, 2010 06:18 AM
rating: 0
Patrick M

Consider also that for the first two years of Cy Young's career, the pitcher's distance was still 55'6", and not the current 60'6".

Some of those counting-stat based pitching records from the early part of MLB history may as well be for a different sport.

Sep 07, 2010 06:33 AM
rating: 0

8 RBIs in one inning by Fernando Tatis. Think about what it would take to break that record.

Also, Jack Taylor's string of 187 consecutive complete games.

Sep 07, 2010 06:44 AM
rating: 0

I'll take my 2 grand slams before your 8 RBI. Not that either is being broken anytime soon.

Sep 07, 2010 10:02 AM
rating: 0

Rickey would like you to know that Rickey actually stole 130 bases in 1982.

Sep 07, 2010 07:09 AM
rating: 7
Joe D.

Bob Dole appreciates your effort in clearing that up, as Bob Dole was a bit confused for a moment there.

Sep 07, 2010 13:54 PM
rating: 2

The Cy Young record and DiMaggio's hitting streat are two different animals. Winning 511 games is impossible just because of the way the game has changed. Same with Vanermeer's back-to-back no hitters; the second one was at night and probably was helped by the poor quality of the early lights. On the other hand, it is at least conceivable that someone could hit in 57 consecutive games, although changes in the game make that less likely as well.

Some records aren't even that significant. As great as it was that Ripken played every day, what difference would it really have made if he had sat out a day or two? Arguably, it would have helped his performance.

Sep 07, 2010 07:15 AM
rating: 0

The thing about dimaggio's streak is that every year every single player has the opportunity to break it. Whereas the pool of players that will pitch long enough to even sniff Cy Young's records is much, much more shallow.

That being said, dimaggio's streak remains unrivaled, which highlights how impressive it is.

Sep 07, 2010 11:09 AM
rating: 1

I'll take Cy Young's 749(!!) complete games as a record that will never ever be broken. Even if a manager went with a 4-man rotation and ran his guy out there 40 times a year, LEFT him in there all 9 every start, it would still take almost TWENTY years of that to achieve that mark.

It's completely inconceivable and unbreakable.

Sep 07, 2010 07:40 AM
rating: 5

old timer records like total wins are products of vastly different usage patterns. i don't really consider them records.

dimaggio's hit streak is kind of a gimmick as well.

this brings up an interesting question, what are the most performance/talent indicative records out there?

Sep 07, 2010 07:49 AM
rating: 2

Pirates 19 years of consecutive losing seasons in professional American sports. A truly transcendent record

Sep 07, 2010 08:05 AM
rating: 1
Brian Kopec

This comment is going to look really silly in about 5-6 years when they are nearing a quarter century of losing. 19 is small potatoes.

Sep 07, 2010 09:33 AM
rating: 4

There were windbags back in the day, too. Who cares if some of them said "No one will ever break Ruth's 60-homer record, harrumph, harrumph!" That was always clearly under threat, by Greenberg, Kiner. So what if some writers/announcers tried to sell ads by proclaiming "It's not! It's not!" Same with Johnson's strikeout record. No one would've been surprised if Feller had broken it.

Sep 07, 2010 08:42 AM
rating: 0

CarGo is also in the NL triple crown race.

Sep 07, 2010 10:05 AM
rating: -3

Most of the records above are products of old-time pitching patterns, or essentially game-based limitations (to get 9 RBI in an inning you have to bat around twice and get 3 at-bats, it just doesn't happen in baseball). However, I submit two records that aren't going to be broken for a long time only because of the absolute perfect storm that came across to allow them to happen. Courtesy of Barry Bonds:

120 IBB in one season
688 IBB in a career

It's not about a change in usage here, it's just that such a ridiculous combination of events that create the situation where a guy got intetionally walked that many times - I just don't see that happening again. Also the .6094 OBP in a year, don't see that falling either.

Sep 07, 2010 10:10 AM
rating: 4

I've always felt Connie Mack's records of most wins (3731) by a manager, most losses (3948) and most games (7679) coached are pretty unbeatable.

Although, I guess Tony LaRussa (age 66) would only have to win 81 more games a year for just over 13 years to approach the wins total. He'd have to coach for 17 more years to get to the total games and lose 81/year for 20 years to get the loss record.

Sep 07, 2010 10:37 AM
rating: 1

The wins record is plausibly breakable, I think. I highly, highly, HIGHLY doubt it will ever happen, but I can think of a perfect storm scenario (guy starts managing in his early 30s, consistently winds up on great teams, goes on and on and on into his late 60s) in which that MIGHT be possible.

But the losses? No chance.

Sep 08, 2010 00:07 AM
rating: 0

Owen Wilson, 36 triples.

Sep 07, 2010 10:57 AM
rating: 2

Joe Morgan, 40 nitwit statements in 1 broadcast...

Sep 07, 2010 17:33 PM
rating: 4
Randy Brown

Hawk Harrelson flies by that number in the 3rd inning.

Sep 07, 2010 19:08 PM
rating: 2

36 triples is a hell of a lot. I can imagine some oddball stadium of the future combining with a good fast hitter to approach that, but that's probably what it will take.

I'm not sure how to manipulate the BP statistics to get all-time records for sabermetric measures, but I'm guessing Barry Bonds's TAv of .451 in 2002 and VORP of 145.1 in 2001 (Ruth got into the 130s I think) may be hard to reach. 2004's 1.421 OPS I'm also guessing is the record (Ruth reached the 1.300s three times). Adding on to DavidK44's observation above, 232 walks of all kinds in '04 seems like a long shot.

Sep 07, 2010 17:38 PM
rating: 0
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