Yea, from the table of my memory I'll wipe away all trivial fond records....
Hamlet, ACT 1, SCENE 5
Lately it seems that all sports records—trivial, fond and otherwise—are being wiped away, doesn't it? Before the Dodgers' Orel Hershiser pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988, Don Drysdale's 30-year-old streak of 58 was considered untouchable. Another distinguished mark, Lee Evans's 400-meter time of 43.86 in the 1968 Olympics, fell on Aug. 17, 1988, when Butch Reynolds ran a 43.29 in Zurich. And in the same city one year later, Roger Kingdom ran the 110-meter hurdles in 12.92, trimming .01 of a second off the seemingly unbeatable standard set by Renaldo Nehemiah in 1981. These days the ink barely dries on new weightlifting records before they must be changed, and swimming marks are erased every time some teenager with earplugs swallows a mouthful of chlorinated water.
Athletes are competing longer now, too, and so a Payton outrushes a Brown and an Abdul-Jabbar out-scores a Chamberlain. No one will ever eclipse Wayne Gretzky's 215-point season of 1985-86, we once said confidently. Well, Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, who had 199 points last season, just might do it—and so might Gretzky himself.
Quick: Name three records in any sport that will never be broken. Chances are you said:
•Bob Beamon's long jump of 29'2½" in the '68 Olympics.
•Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game on March 2, 1962, against the New York Knicks in Hershey, Pa.
•Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak of 56 consecutive games in 1941.
For a variety of reasons, these three marks stand out. Beamon's jump, which broke the existing world record by almost two feet, is still an astonishing thing to watch on film. First the leap and then the incredulous Beamon holding his face in his hands, trying to comprehend. What have I done? Chamberlain's 100-point game is statistically even more impressive (as we shall see), but the extraordinary was expected from Wilt, who by 1962, his third year in the NBA, was already surpassing his own standards. What makes Chamberlain's mark so imposing is the majesty of the number itself. One hundred points. Easy to remember; impossible to duplicate. It is DiMaggio's mark, however, that sits alone on top of the record realm's Mount Olympus Babe Ruth's 60-home-run season held that distinction until Roger Maris asterisked it out of the record book in 1961), a monument to consistency that has withstood the tests of time, Pete Rose, Paul Molitor et al.
For sure, 29'2½", 100 and 56 are big numbers in the record business. So why have they stood up while hundreds of other records have fallen? Are they truly unassailable? Are there other, even more impregnable, albeit less well known, records out there? And even if a record is invulnerable, is it worthy of the recognition? What constitutes a great record? Would only a crazy person try to answer such questions?
The answer to that last one is a resounding yes. People who spend their lives working with statistics, like the numbers-crunchers at the Elias Sports Bureau in New York City, won't list records they consider unsurpassable. They're too smart for that.
"Records are broken when circumstances are right," says Peter Hirdt, an executive vice-president at Elias, "and circumstances get complicated." Pressed to name a record that he can say with 100% certainty will never be broken, Hirdt sighs the sigh of a man humoring an imbecile and says, "O.K., here it is: Complete games in a season. In 1879, Cincinnati pitcher William White completed 74 games. Of course, he also started 74 games. Call me crazy, but I don't think any pitcher will ever do that again."
Hirdt isn't crazy, of course. Last year's complete-game leader, Bret Saberhagen, finished only 12. Hirdt's point is that baseball, like most sports, has changed so much over the years that comparisons of records are not only odious but unreliable. Pitching poses particular problems because it is only in the last 40 years or so that relief pitchers have been widely used. The huge number of innings logged by the old-timers allowed them to set marks that can never be beaten. Big Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox pitched 464 innings in 1908—obviously an unbreachable standard—yet I find the 376 innings pitched by Detroit's Mickey Lolich in 1971 just as impressive, considering he was a hard-throwing pitcher in a bullpen age. And so, as you will see, I have only one old-time chucker among my record holders.
Hitting, too, is the subject of endless and ultimately irreconcilable cross-era arguments. Who achieved more in 24 years of batting: Ty Cobb, who collected 4,191 hits while whaling away (for the first 15 years of his career, anyway) at a dead ball, or Rose, who got the record 4,256 hits while facing specialist relief pitchers under the nasty glare of artificial light?
Even more problematic than baseball is boxing, which has changed so much since its bare-knuckle days—when fighters routinely went at each other for 60 rounds or more—that records are all but meaningless. Today's fighters simply don't have the chance—fortunately for them—to eclipse some of the old records. Sugar Ray Robinson, after all, fought more times (45) after the age of 40 than his namesake Sugar Ray Leonard has fought in his entire career. Even if there were a contemporary boxer with the talent to hold three world titles simultaneously, as did the great Henry Armstrong (featherweight, welterweight and lightweight) back in 1938, today's rules would not allow it. (Even in Armstrong's day the rules were restrictive; Armstrong had to give up his featherweight crown shortly after winning the lightweight.) And so there are no boxing records on this list.
There are other sticky issues to deal with. For instance, what is a record? Is there a record, say, for setting records? If so, the legendary Soviet weightlifter Vasily Alexeyev must own it, for he broke 82 world marks. Yet every one of his records has fallen. Then, too, some great achievements in sport are simply not records at all, such as John McEnroe's demolition of Jimmy Connors in the 1984 Wimbledon final: It took McEnroe just 80 minutes and he lost only four games. Still, many other matches have been as short and just as decisive.
And then there is the specter of dubious record keeping. In 1934, halfback Beattie Feathers averaged 9.94 yards per carry for the Chicago Bears. Obviously no one will ever touch that mark—unless expansion franchises on the moon spawn featherweight running backs. But there are many researchers who simply don't believe Feathers's number and who theorize that kickoff and/or punt returns were included. Sorry, Beattie, I don't believe it, either, and I didn't include it.
What about Ben Johnson? His time of 9.79 seconds in the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul has been wiped off the official record books because Johnson used steroids before the race. His 9.83 at the 1987 World Championships will probably be disallowed as well. Thus neither mark is included here.
Most troublesome is the question of which sports to consider. Should one include Walter Prow's time of 16.81 seconds in the 100-meter snowshoe sprint, which broke a 17-second mark that had stood for years? How about the rope-jumping records of Katsumi Suzuki, who on May 29, 1975, established two standards (381 treble turns, 51 quadruple turns) that might never be surpassed? (A third Suzuki mark—10,133 double turns—has stood since September 1979.)
Let's leave it at this: I'll concern myself only with marks that are generally considered athletic records—my name isn't Guinness—and only in the so-called major sports. A few team records will be included, although the emphasis will be on individual accomplishment; teams change, even if their names remain the same. No major league baseball franchise, for example, will win as many championships (22) as the New York Yankees, but the Yanks won them over 55 years, from 1923 to 1978.
Subjective judgments will—repeat, will—be made. They must. Two professors, Dr. Bruce Golden of the University of Maryland and Dr. Edward Wasil of American University, who used a computer to study the overall topic of sports records, admitted that their own "subjective preferences" crept into the study, which was published in the September-October 1987 issue of the academic journal Interfaces. I referred to the study for this less learned discussion (and found it quite helpful) but was not wedded to its results.
Records must be divided into three categories: single-event (Beamon's jump), single-season (DiMaggio's hitting streak) and career (Rose's hitting record). Of the three, single-season records are in many ways the most "legitimate," because they measure accomplishment over a set period of time that is neither too long nor too short. Single-event records are often showy, flash-in-the-pan feats and, as such, are hard to evaluate. In my opinion, only the first two of the single-event records listed below (Chamberlain's 100 points and Secretariat's time of 2:24 in the 1973 Belmont Stakes) are truly unassailable. Career records invariably involve the kinds of complicated circumstances that make Hirdt hurt (number of games played, quality of teams played for, injuries, etc.) and have a major effect on the numbers. Who knows, for example, how many records Ted Williams would have set if he had not missed nearly five seasons while flying combat aircraft during World War II and the Korean War? Or, for that matter, if he hadn't been so stubborn that he tried to punch line drives through six fielders deployed against him in the Williams Shift, instead of simply lollipopping hits to leftfield?
So, here are my ratings. Keep in mind that I want records not only to be difficult to duplicate but also to mean something. The major league mark for triples in a single season—36, set by Owen (Chief) Wilson of the Pirates in 1912—is unquestionably unassailable. Yet it is, according to baseball researcher Tom Hansen, "the quirkiest record I've seen, since Wilson's next best is 14," and it's not worthy of inclusion. Probably no college football team will ever again win a game by a score of 222-0, as Georgia Tech did over Cumberland in 1916, but so what? The margin of victory is as insignificant as it is unbeatable. Thus the marks below are ordered according to worthiness as well as unassailability.
1) Chamberlain's 100-point game. Actually, Bevo Francis of Rio Grande scored 113 points in a college basketball game against Hillsdale in 1954, and several high school players have scored more than 100 points in a game, led by Danny Heater of Burnsville (W.Va.) High School, who scored 135 points against Widen High in 1960. But let's agree that Chamberlain's mark is the most noteworthy because it came at the highest level of competition. (O.K., O.K., so the Knicks finished last in the Eastern Division that season, with a 29-51 record; they were still in the NBA.)
"It can't happen again," says Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan, the game's only 100-point candidate right now. "Today's defenses are too complicated," he says. "A team simply wouldn't let you score that many. Not even close to it."
In Jordan's reasoning there is at least an implied criticism of Chamberlain's 100-point game: Back then defenses were not as complex or as likely to double-and triple-team a player as they are today. And, yes, Chamberlain was bigger, stronger and more mobile than any other player on the court; he might be today, too, but not by as much. And Chamberlain did attempt 63 field goals, the highest one-game total ever.
But all of those factors should not diminish the achievement. Chamberlain, after all, raised the single-game scoring record by 22 points—a 28% improvement—and it was his own record he broke (he had scored 78 against the Lakers in Philadelphia on Dec. 8 of that season). The percentage goes up to 37 when Chamberlain's 100 points are compared with the best single-game scoring performance by another player: David Thompson's 73 points against the Pistons on April 9, 1978. And, lest we forget, on that special March evening nearly 28 years ago, one of the worst foul shooters in NBA history made 28 of 32 from the line.
2) Secretariat's time of 2:24, with Ron Turcotte up, in the '73 Belmont Stakes. "Horses don't set records, tracks' do," goes the adage. Indeed, on that lovely afternoon in June the 1½-mile Belmont Park track was exceptionally fast. Still, no other horse has come within 2[2/5] seconds of that unbelievable time, and there have been other fast fields in other fast Belmonts. The victory gave Secretariat the Triple Crown, and his margin of victory—31 lengths over runner-up Twice A Prince and 45¼ lengths over last-place Sham, who had run second to Secretariat in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness—was unprecedented in a major race.
Many racing records are held by ordinary horses who had extraordinary days on extraordinarily fast tracks. The fact that an extraordinary horse turned in this record makes it all the more meaningful.
3) Beamon's 29'2½" long jump. It has been fashionable to demean Beamon's record (the exercise is called "demeanin'beamon"), primarily because he set it in the thin air of Mexico City—with a strong tail wind to boot—but also because he never approached it again. In fact, Beamon never again jumped 28 feet. By any measure except this one, Carl Lewis is clearly the superior jumper.
But I don't want to start playing demeanin'beamon. The reason I rank his achievement only third—and below that of a horse—is that the record will fall one of these days, as all track records do. Lewis, 28, has jumped 28'10¼" and might still have a superjump left in him; so might Robert Emmiyan of the Soviet Union, whose 29'1" jump in May 1987 is the second-longest in history.
Still, we should look back at Beamon's jump with admiration. In a sport in which records are usually broken by increments of tenths and sometimes hundredths of an inch, Beamon leapt almost two feet beyond the existing world standard (Igor Ter-Ovanesyan's and Ralph Boston's 27'4¾")—a 6.6% improvement. It might be the clearest instance of adrenaline-driven over-achievement that the sports world has ever seen.
4) Los Angeles Ram quarterback Norm Van Brocklin's 554-yard passing game against the New York Yanks on Sept. 28, 1951. I owe Golden and Wasil for recognizing this one, which in their ranking of "great" but not necessarily unassailable sports records comes in second, behind Chamberlain's 100-point game. I don't agree that it should be ranked so high. For one thing, Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino came within 33 yards of the mark on Oct. 23, 1988. And there is the possibility that on some future Sunday afternoon Randall Cunningham, John Elway or some other strong-armed quarterback will get that many yards.
But that's only a possibility. The record has stood for 38 seasons—Golden and Wasil consider duration the most important criterion of a "good" record—and it was certainly no fluke. The Dutchman was that good.
5) Mary T. Meagher's 2:05.96 in the 200-meter butterfly in 1981. It might be folly to suggest that any swimming record is unbeatable, but Meagher's time is so phenomenal that it might stay on the books for a long while. No other woman has broken 2:07, and most 200-fly winners don't even come close to that. The gold medal-winning time of East Germany's Kathleen Nord in the 1988 Olympics was 2:09.51. One men's swimming record, Vladimir Salnikov's 14:54.76 in the 1,500-meter freestyle in 1983, approaches Meagher's mark in longevity, but last month an Australian, Glen Housman, swam the distance in 14:53.59, according to a handheld (and thus unofficial) timer.
6) Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton's 275-yard rushing game against Minnesota on Nov. 20, 1977. The record only slightly surpasses O.J. Simpson's 273 yards against Detroit on Nov. 25, 1976, and, clearly, there are running backs with the talent to exceed 275, Eric Dickerson foremost among them. If the record is broken, it will be because a certain team needs its running back to gain that many yards in a certain game. That was the case with the Bears, who on this record-breaking afternoon gave the ball to Payton 40 times in a hard-fought 10-7 win over the Vikings.
7) Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal on Nov. 8, 1970. Teams rarely attempt such long field goals anymore because of a 1974 rules change that gives the opposition the ball at the line of scrimmage, rather than the 20-yard line, after a missed field goal. (Nevertheless, Miami Dolphins kicker Pete Stoyanovich tried and made a 59-yard field goal only last Nov. 12.) And Dempsey's record kick is, after all, three yards longer than the next-longest, Steve Cox's 60-yarder for Cleveland on Oct. 21, 1984. But how worthy is it? Many football people hate the record because Dempsey, on balance, was not a great kicker. "He was horrible," says Minnesota placekicker Rich Karlis. Well, no, Rich, he wasn't horrible. And Dempsey set the mark on natural turf, before a national television audience, under pressure: The kick gave his New Orleans Saints a 19-17 victory over the Detroit Lions. It belongs.
8) The Chicago Bears' 73-point margin of victory over the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL championship game. I question the significance of one-sided games, but I include this record because the 73-0 score is ingrained in America's collective sports consciousness. And it was a championship game, and the result did reverse the outcome of a regular-season meeting three weeks earlier, in which the Redskins had beaten the Bears 7-3. Such a rout in such a big game will never happen again. The 23-year history of the Super Bowl has produced relatively few close games, yet the widest margin of victory is 36 points, which occurred in 1986 when Chicago, of all teams, beat New England 46-10.
9) Jim Bottomley's 12-RBI game for St. Louis at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Sept. 16, 1924. There's no reason why this record should be unassailable, but it has survived for more than 65 years. Intentional walks and late-inning relief specialists might have had something to do with it. Only one contemporary player, San Diego's Fred Lynn, has come close to Bottomley's mark: Playing for the Red Sox on June 18, 1975, he had 10 RBIs against the Detroit Tigers. The Yankees' Tony Lazzeri came closest to "Sunny Jim's" record with 11 ribbies on May 24, 1936.
10) The total of 3,858 points scored by Budweiser Beer of St. Louis in a 15-game series against Pulaski Savings on March 12, 1958. Don't be a snob. Team bowling used to be big time in the U.S., yet the closest any team ever came to Bud's mark was 3,820. True, bowling is no longer a major sport, but that doesn't make any difference, because no team could ever top this record anyway. Budweiser's lineup on that evening was Don Carter, Dick Weber, Ray Bluth, Pat Patterson and Tom Hennessey, five of the finest bowlers in history.
1) Babe Ruth's slugging average of .847 in 1920. No one pays much attention to slugging averages (compiled by dividing total bases by total at bats), partly because no one has come close to doing what Ruth did in 1920. And no one ever will. Consider: Last season's slugging-average leader was Kevin Mitchell, with .635, and no one has reached .700 since Ted Williams's .731 in 1957. Not that slugging averages were that much higher in 1920—the Babe's average was .215 higher than second-place George Sisler's .632, and Sisler batted .407 that year. In an astonishing show of extra-base versatility, Ruth hit 36 doubles, nine triples and 54 home runs—and did it in only 458 at bats. Over his career, Ruth's slugging average was an incredible .690, .056 higher than Ted Williams's second-place .634.
2) Chamberlain's season scoring average of 50.4 in 1961-62. In any era, in any league, against any competition, it would be remarkable. Michael Jordan dominates many games offensively, yet he averaged "only" 37.1 points per game in his best scoring season (1986-87), and that was the fifth-best season scoring average ever. The three numbers between Jordan's and Chamberlain's (37.6, 38.4, 44.8) were all registered by—who else?—Chamberlain himself.
3) DiMaggio's consecutive-game hitting streak of 56. Un-American, you say, to place only third what might be the most famous sports record of all time? I'm not trying to be controversial or needlessly revisionist. There is every indication that the record will stand forever. Hitters have whacked away at it without success for 48 seasons, and the closest anyone has come is Rose's 44 in 1978—which, truth to tell, is not all that close. Besides, the oppressive media attention focused on any player who gets within sniffing distance of the record—commentators these days start to call attention to hitting streaks of 15 games—is a far greater burden for the hitter than a two-strike slider down and away.
And that last point is significant: Whatever pressures DiMaggio had to endure—and accounts vary on that score—the hitting streak was not nearly as remarkable in 1941 as it would be in 1990. And that is why I place it third.
4) The Los Angeles Lakers' 33-game winning streak, from Nov. 5, 1971, to Jan. 7, 1972. Two facts put this underappreciated accomplishment into proper perspective: The longest single-season winning streak since the Lakers' has been Boston's 18 in 1982, and the second-longest streak in NBA history is only 20, by the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—led Milwaukee Bucks in 1971. True, the league did not have as many good teams then as it has today, but that does not diminish the accomplishment of coach Bill Sharman's Lakers. No other dynasty, no matter how formidable—neither the Minneapolis Lakers of the '50s nor the Boston Celtics of the '60s—was able to approach that mark.
An interesting sidelight is that during the entire '71-72 season the Lakers had only seven personal-foul disqualifications (three for John Trapp, two for Flynn Robinson and two for Happy Hairston—the only starter to foul out). Atlanta had the next-fewest (14), followed by New York (15), which lost to the Lakers 4-1 in the championship series. But avoidance of foul trouble was not, of course, the reason L.A. was a steamroller—its starting lineup of Hairston and Jim McMillian at forward, Chamberlain at center and Jerry West and Gail Goodrich in the backcourt was among the greatest of all time.
5) Maris's 61-homer season in '61. Willie Mays (52 home runs in '65) and George Foster (52 in '77) are the only players to come close to 61 since that unforgettable year when Maris sent Tracy Stallard's fastball into the rightfield seats in Yankee Stadium on Oct. 1. Kevin Mitchell led the majors in home runs in 1989, and he hit only 47. "I'm not sure anyone will ever break Maris's record," says Pirate manager Jim Leyland. At the least, it would take one of those live-ball years that come along every once in a while. No record has ever been more shot at and spit on: It was an expansion year; he had Mantle hitting behind him; he couldn't carry Ruth's cleats, etc. But the larger point is that he did it, and he did it under unimaginable pressure.
6) Byron Nelson's 11 straight PGA tournament victories in 1945. Yes, we know that the distinguished Mr. Nelson could not have done it today, not on a circuit in which dozens of players have the tools to win in any given week. And he did set the mark in a year when World War II played havoc with the Tour. But that wasn't Nelson's fault. Winning is winning, pressure is pressure, and to be better than everyone in 11 straight golf tournaments—from the Miami Four Ball to the Canadian Open—is a stupendous performance in any era.
7) Rogers Hornsby's season batting average of .424 in 1924. Obviously, no one will reach this mark again, unless the game undergoes some fundamental change—say, the mound is moved back five feet, or fastballs on the wrist are prohibited. The "soft" spot in the record is the fact that .400 hitters were not as rare in Hornsby's day (the Rajah himself racked up three .400 years between '22 and '25). Nevertheless, no other hitter after 1901—not Cobb, not Shoeless Joe Jackson—ever hit higher than .420 in a single season.
8) Paul Hornung's 176 points scored in a single NFL season (1960). The asterisk on this one is obvious: Hornung was a multiple-threat offensive player who ran, caught passes and also kicked extra points and field goals. In '60 he scored 15 touchdowns, kicked 15 field goals and added 41 PATs for Green Bay. The second-best single-season total (161 points in 1983) was achieved by a placekicker, Washington's Mark Moseley. But should the Packers' Golden Boy be penalized for his versatility? His is an entirely worthy and, in all probability, unbreachable record.
9) A tie: Nolan Ryan's 383 strikeouts in 1973 and Dan Marino's 48 touchdown passes in 1984. Neither mark is quite as safe as the others in this category, because nothing fundamental has changed in either baseball or football to prevent future gunslingers from surpassing these numbers. But it would take some doing. The second-best strikeout mark in modern history is 382, by a guy named Sandy Koufax in 1965. Only Marino, with 44 touchdown passes in '86, has come close to his '84 mark.
10) Hack Wilson's 190 RBIs in 1930. Why isn't more attention given to this astounding achievement? One reason is that 1930 was one of those years of the hitter; Wilson's Chicago Cubs averaged .309 as a team, and they didn't even win the pennant (the St. Louis Cardinals did). Moreover, there are several factors that affect an individual's RBI total. Does the team put a lot of runners on base? Is the third base coach an adventurous guy who waves runners home from third on short fly balls, from second on singles, from first on doubles? Is the RBI man allowed to swing away?
Wilson did all he was asked. There were plenty of runners on base, and he drove them in plenty of times. The next-best season total is 184 (by Lou Gehrig in 1931), and players get million-dollar contracts these days for driving in half of Wilson's total.
1) Jack Nicklaus's victories in 20 major golf championships. O.K., Big Jack didn't have to time Walter Johnson's fastball or find the seams in the New York Giants' defense or maneuver his way past Bill Russell in the lane. Heck, he won a few of those majors when he was Fat Jack, 250 pounds of Jell-O in a yellow cardigan. But when it comes to laughing in the face of that old demonic duo, fear and pressure, is there anyone to match this man?
Nicklaus won four U.S. Opens, six Masters, five PGAs, three British Opens and two U.S. Amateurs. And he won them over 27 years, from his first U.S. Amateur triumph in 1959 to his dramatic victory at Augusta in 1986. Next-best? Bobby Jones, with 12. A pretty fair golfer named Arnold Palmer won only eight majors. Think about it. The Golden Bear has won more majors than most other Tour golfers have won tournaments. And if golf's lack of physicality bothers you, consider that in tournament golf there are absolutely no aids to greatness—no teammates to move you around the bases or block for you or pass you the ball. And in recognizing Nicklaus's achievement, we don't have to factor in his 18 second-place finishes in the majors.
Nicklaus turns 50 this month, so we presume his log of major victories is complete. Of course, some of us thought that before the '86 Masters.
2) Ty Cobb's .367 lifetime batting average. The unassailability of this record is beyond question: Wade Boggs, one of the best hitters in baseball today, would have to hit .400 for the next four seasons to reach a career average of .369. But is the mark also worthy of recognition, given the presumption that averages were higher back then? A resounding yes. In 1909 and '10, for example, Cobb hit .377 and .385, respectively, and it wasn't as if everyone was nipping at his flashing spikes—the American League averages in those years were .244 and .243. By contrast, last year's major-league average was .254, compared with Kirby Puckett's major league-leading .339. Yes, there were generally more high-average hitters in Cobb's day, but he was clearly the best among them.
3) Henry Aaron's 755 home runs. What would a young home run hitter need to do to beat it? Consider Oakland's Jose Canseco, who has averaged 30.75 home runs in his first four seasons. Rounding it off to 31 per year, Canseco would have to average that for the next 20 seasons to reach 756. The Hammer's phenomenal consistency and durability—he hit 40 homers in 1973, when he was 39—will never be equaled.
4) Edwin Moses's streak of 122 consecutive victories in the 400-meter hurdles. Moses won every time he stepped onto the track between Sept. 2, 1977, and June 4, 1987. Mind-boggling. I rank this career record below the first three only because it was achieved over fewer years. No one else in track history casts such a large shadow over a single event—Moses's closest rival is Parry O'Brien, who won 116 straight shot-put events from 1952 to '56—and we will never see Moses's like again.
5) Another tie: UCLA's 88-game winning streak in college basketball and the University of Oklahoma's 47-game streak in college football. UCLA's achievement is, no doubt, superior, but in the big picture, these two records are really different sides of the same coin. They represent eras that are gone forever from big-time college sports. Although changing groups of players forged these streaks—UCLA's lasted parts of three seasons, from 1971-72 to 1973-74; Oklahoma's, nearly five seasons, from 1953 to '57—they are really testaments to the coaching genius of the Bruins' John Wooden and the Sooners' Bud Wilkinson. Wooden also won seven straight NCAA championships, a feat that could be listed here just as easily as UCLA's game-winning streak.
6) Johnny Unitas's completion of at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight games for the Baltimore Colts. Credit goes to Golden and Wasil for unearthing this one; it is sometimes overlooked because it's a "partial career" record that Unitas set between 1956, his rookie year, and 1960. I don't like it quite as much as the computer gurus do (they rank it first in career records, just ahead of Ruth's .690 slugging average) because of the extenuating circumstances: Unitas had receivers like Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore to throw to, and the Colts had the kind of ferocious defense that got Unitas the ball often and in scoring position.
But the record is entirely worthy, not least because the man who set it is football's paragon of consistent, accurate passing. Next-best is Marino's 30 straight games with at least one touchdown pass, followed by Dave Krieg's 28. No one will touch Unitas's mark. After all, these days keeping a quarterback healthy for 47 straight games is a feat in itself.
7) Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games. Of all the records for endurance, this is the best. On the unassailability scale, it is as solid as any record in the books—the second-best mark is a mere 1,307 consecutive games, set from 1916 to 1925 by Everett Scott, a shortstop for the Red Sox and Yankees. Gehrig's record ranks high in worthiness too, because of his talent. From June 1, 1925, to May 2, 1939, through fractures and spasms and aches and pains of all kinds, the Iron Horse played in every game and was probably a major factor in most of them. The story goes that Gehrig's wife, Eleanor, wanted him to stop the historic streak at 1,999 games, because 1,999 was a number that no one would ever forget. Well, in the records game, 2,130 is a number that no one will ever forget, either.
8) Cy Young's 511 victories, 824 career decisions and 751 complete games. These are the oldest records on the list—Young's last season was 1911—but they belong. Sure, the game was different then: Starting pitchers were rarely given relief, and for the first three years of his career, Young pitched only 50 feet from the plate. But he was no less effective from 60'6", and he had to be awfully good to get the call as many times as he did in his 22 years on the mound. Though many major league pitchers are employed into ripe old age these days, none will ever catch Young. The benchmark for greatness in a pitcher, after all, is 300 wins, and it takes 20 25-win seasons to reach 500. Or would it be easier to have 25 20-win seasons? No doubt about it: Cy Young is the right name for the trophy that goes annually to the best pitcher in each of the major leagues.
9) Tie again: Abdul-Jabbar's NBA point total (38,387), George Blanda's NFL point total (2,002) and Rose's hit total (4,256). O.K., so Chamberlain was a more potent scorer than Abdul-Jab-bar; Lou Groza, among others, was a better placekicker than Blanda; and Cobb, among others, was a better hitter than Rose. It doesn't matter. All three records reflect sustained excellence over long periods of time (20 years for Abdul-Jabbar, 26 for Blanda, 24 for Rose) as well as the mental and physical commitment to stay on top of one's game. Only Abdul-Jabbar's mark seems vulnerable when one scans the contemporary horizon. Jordan's season scoring average of 32.6 is appreciably higher than Abdul-Jabbar's 24.6. But Jordan plays a strength-sapping 94-foot game that he cannot still be playing 10 years from now.
10) Glenn Hall's 503 straight games as a starting goalie. True, it's another "circumstance" record. Today's hockey goalies, who are judged on game appearances, not starts, have it tougher, what with more slap shooters, more shots per game and more exhaustion from travel. Consequently they are shuffled in and out of play much more frequently. Last year's appearance leader, the Los Angeles Kings' Kelly Hrudey (traded late in the season from the New York Islanders), played in 66 of 80 games. Montreal's Patrick Roy, who won the Vezina Trophy last season as the top goalie in the NHL, appeared in 48 games. But from Oct. 6, 1955, through Nov. 7, 1962, Hall started in the crease for the Detroit Red Wings and, later, the Chicago Black Hawks, a Gehrigesque achievement. And he still had enough left to earn the Vezina Trophy in 1967 and 1969, years after the streak ended.
I cringe when I think of the names that are missing. Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bobby Orr, Koufax, Oscar Robertson, Bjorn Borg, Gretzky—athletes Hirdt calls "transcendental," because each fundamentally changed the way his sport was played. I could have worked them in by inventing a few categories. No other NBA player will walk away with 11 championship rings in 13 years, as Russell did between '57 and '69. No other NHL player will win eight straight MVP awards, as Gretzky did between '80 and '87. No other male tennis player will win five straight Wimbledon singles titles, as Borg did between '76 and '80. But this is a piece about records, not feats. Often they are two different things.
Which set me to thinking: What is the greatest athletic feat of all time?
Most consecutive games with a touchdown pass
Most home runs hit over a major league career
Longest distance ever traveled in the long jump
Most points scored in a pro basketball career
Fastest time in the women's 200-meter butterfly
Most consecutive NHL games as a starting goalie
Most points scored during a pro football career