This week’s entry: List of Major League Baseball records considered unbreakable
What it’s about: For 140 years, major league baseball teams have been taking the field in April, and for just as long, stats nerds have obsessed over batting averages, fielding percentages, and triples hit off of left-handed pitchers in cities with an “R” in the name. Many of these numbers fly by in an endless torrent. But some stand the test of time, and become a hallowed part of baseball’s history. Of those, Wikipedia has enshrined some of the most permanent fixtures—records many believe will never be broken.
Strangest fact: The record thought to be most unbreakable is the smallest number: 2. That’s the number of consecutive no-hitters, set back in 1938 by Johnny Vander Meer for the Cincinnati Reds. The no-hitter, in which a pitcher doesn’t allow a single base hit in nine innings, is one of the rarest occurrences in baseball (surpassed only by a “perfect game,” in which no batter reaches first base with a hit, a walk, or by any other means). There have been only 294 no-hitters in the over 200,000 Major League games played, so the odds of pitching two in a row are astronomical. In fact, only 32 pitchers in history have thrown two in their careers. (Nolan Ryan holds the all-time record with seven, and the second-best in history is Sandy Koufax’s four.) While it’s possible someone will repeat the feat, actually breaking the record by pitching three no-hitters back-to-back is considered statistically impossible.
Biggest controversy: There’s a standing disagreement to exactly how many wins in one season Old Hoss Radbourn set a record with in 1884. Here Wikipedia lists 59 wins for the Hall Of Famer and Twitter sensation, but the Hall itself, and classic reference book Baseball Encyclopedia, credit him with 60. Radbourn’s tombstone claims 62 wins. (The player’s own Wikipedia page gets into the details, where the disputed game was considered a win by the scorekeeper, but under a modern interpretation of the rules, Radbourn would have been given a save instead.) In any case, against only 12 losses, it’s the best season a pitcher has ever had, and a more punishing season than any pitcher has had in a long time. Most pitchers start 35 games or fewer, and the last man to win even 30 games was Denny McLain in 1968. Until steroids get a lot better or they build a robot arm, no one’s likely to have the stamina to pitch 60 games, let alone win that many.
Thing we were happiest to learn: While no one’s clamoring to break the record for most losses on the road, it’s actually impossible to be as bad as the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, possibly the worst professional sports team of all time. For starters, the Spiders were owned by the same group that owned the St. Louis Perfectos (now the Cardinals), and they shipped Cleveland’s best teams to St. Louis, and sent any less-than-Perfectos to Cleveland in their place. (Every part of that would be against the rules today.) And at a time when the league was less organized, teams simply refused to travel to Cleveland, knowing they’d be playing for a mostly empty stadium and therefore very little ticket money (the Spiders averaged just under 200 fans over their first 16 games). Instead, the Spiders were forced to play many of their scheduled home games in their opponents’ stadiums, and as such, the team only played 42 games in Cleveland, and 112 on the road. Today’s teams play exactly 81 games on the road no matter how bad attendance is, so the Spiders’ mark of 101 losses on the road will probably stand forever. (The Spider’s 1899 season total of 20-134, the worst mark in baseball history, will probably be pretty tough to beat as well.)
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Even unbreakable records get broken sometimes. Japanese superstar-turned-Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki holds one considered-unbreakable record, going 10 consecutive seasons with 200 hits. But that record broke Willie Keeler’s record of 8, which had stood for nearly a century. Ichiro also beat Keeler’s record of 206 singles from 1898, and in 2004, managed 262 hits, breaking George Sisler’s 84-year-old record.
The most famous “unbreakable” record to fall must be the consecutive games streak set by Lou Gehrig, who went 2,130 games without a day off. Gehrig was nicknamed the “Iron Man,” and his record was a firm part of baseball’s lore, especially since he soldiered on even while suffering from the disease that now bears his name. Yet the record was smashed by Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., who broke the record in 1995, and then played another 502 in a row before finally taking a day off in 1998.
Also noteworthy: One of the greatest ballplayers of all time, Hank Aaron has the record for most appearances in baseball’s All-Star Game, with 25. Aaron gets a bit of a boost, since baseball had two All-Star Games per season from 1959-1962 (Aaron appeared in all eight games during that span), but even without that, his 21 All-Star seasons would still hold the record. He has some close competitors—Willie Mays and Stan Musial each had 24 appearances. But since Aaron retired in 1976, the closest has been Cal Ripken Jr., with 19, and no one else has come closer than 15. (Tony Gwynn and Ozzie Smith each appeared that many times in the ’80s and ’90s.) The active leader is Alex Rodriguez, with 14, but at age 40, 11 more All-Star appearances is probably out of the question for A-Rod.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: For some of you, this week’s column included far too many statistics, but for others, it contained far too few. If you’re in the latter group, you probably already know all about sabermetrics, the field of studying more complicated statistics than RBIs or batting average. The field was pioneered (and named) by Bill James, whose annual Bill James Baseball Abstract sparked an interest in in-depth analysis of why players and teams fail and succeed.
Further down the Wormhole: Vander Meer’s back-to-back no hitters was deemed baseball’s most unbreakable record by Life magazine. Life was a weekly American institution from 1883 to 1972 (after that, it ran sporadically until 1978, and then monthly until 2002). While it was a nationwide publication, for several years it ran capsule reviews of plays and films running in New York City, a practiced it borrowed from The New Yorker, which itself has been running since 1925. The latter publication has managed to thrive even in the age which its publisher, Condé Nast, has shuttered print magazines, while buying user-generated web content behemoth Reddit. Reddit was founded in 2005, and first made its impact felt outside of the web in 2007, when its users voted en masse to name a humpback whale Mr. Splashy Pants. We’ll hear that salty tale next week.