Monday, May 16, 2011

Baseball's 'Unbreakable' Records

Ted Williams, left, and Joe DiMaggio completed feats
in 1941 that might never be broken.
It's funny how over the years the so-called "holy grail" of baseball's unbreakable records has shifted. As one after another was surpassed, a new record was "the" one that was unassailable.

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the start of Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. This is also the 70th anniversary of Ted Williams being the last to bat .400. Both records seem unlikely to be broken. But the list of unbreakable records that have fallen is impressive.

When Henry Aaron was on his way to becoming baseball's home run champion, it was almost unimaginable that Babe Ruth's mark was going to be surpassed. 

I was lucky enough to be at Wrigley Field to see Aaron hit No. 702. My Dad took the family and my cousin to see the former Milwaukee Braves star play the woeful Chicago Cubs. I was a confirmed Cubbie fan back then, but that day I was rooting for Hammerin' Hank.

I remember the game and the scene well. It was Aug. 16, 1973 (OK, I checked the date that on the web). We were sitting close to the field between home and third. The game was close until the 8th inning, when the Braves scored nine runs, including Aaron's three-run bomb, to break it open. I distinctly remember the man behind us chiding me for cheering the HR. "I thought you were a Cubs fan," he said. "I am," I replied. "But I'm an Aaron fan, too." He smiled and said, "OK."

The next year the Babe's record was broken. The debate was on, which was record would that now would never be broken. The contenders were Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played, DiMaggio's 56-game streak, Ty Cobb's career hits total and Williams feat.

Each had their backers. Of course, two have already fallen by the wayside. Pete Rose passed Cobb and Cal Ripken became baseball's new "Iron Man."

So now we have two to choose from (unless you talk about pitchers. Then you have to consider Cy Young's 511 wins, Walter Johnson's record 110 shutouts, or perhaps Jack Chesbro, the only pitcher to win 40 games in a season after 1900).

We'll set pitching aside. It does seem like the deck is stacked against anyone breaking Williams' or DiMaggio's record. Night baseball, the use of relief-pitching specialists and the crush of modern media have all been cited as reasons they are out of reach. (Although, DiMaggio felt the crush of media in '41. Maybe each generation feels the same ratcheting up of the media storm.)

Still, George Brett did bat .390 in 1980 and Rod Carew finished 1977 at .388 (a mark reached by Williams in his second-last season, 1957). A handful of infield hits or bloops that fell safely would have put each past the magical mark. On the other hand, since DiMaggio's streak, only Pete Rose has hit in more than 40 consecutive games (44 in 1978).

Based on that it seems .400 is more in reach. But those other records all seemed out of reach. Baseball has a way of springing surprises on the fans. Just when the era of starting pitchers working deep into games seemed long past, Nolan Ryan comes along and says Texas Rangers hurlers will do just that.

So maybe, just maybe, we'll all get to see another "unbreakable" record be shattered.


  1. I will always be grateful to your parents for including me on that trip. While I am ashamed to admit I don't remember the home run, I vividly remember how awestruck I was sitting in those stands, seeing that score board and those ivy covered walls in person. One of my happiest childhood memories.

  2. That was a great day and it's a great memory.

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