Saturday, May 6, 2006

Solid Gold Records

The invention of basketball was not an accident. It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play "Drop the Handkerchief." ~James Naismith

A site had a very interesting piece on what they considered to be the 10 most unbreakable sports records. It did not include Joe Dimaggio's 56 hitting streak, although they paid it tribute in their introduction. I've got my own comments on some of them; you can get the full list at the site.

Their number 10 is Rocky Marciano's 49-0 record as a heavyweight boxer. What makes this record amazing is that not that Marciano had 49 straight wins; Larry Holmes got to 48. No, what's remarkable is that Marciano retired at that point with his brains in tact (unlike the brains of many of his opponents). He quit on top after demolishing the division. Marciano must also hold the record for being one of the smartest boxers of all time.

I really don't know why Wilt Chamberlin's 100 point game hasn't been eclipsed. I think it's because no other team has ever made a conscious decision to feed a single player at the expense of embarrassing another team. Kobe Bryant had an 80 point game this season; Michael Jordan, who had several games over 50 poins, could have done it. It's a long season, with a long playoff season. There's no reason to tick anyone off that much. Sooner or later, though, someone is going to decide to beat up a cupcake team and beat Chamberlin's record.

One record that amazed me was Jerry Rice's lifetime reception yardage. It's not that he had so much, because the man played brilliantly for years and had the good fortune to play with a couple of pretty fair quarterbacks. It's the margin he has on the next guy on the active list. Tim Brown, who is no slouch himself, is 8000 yards behind. When you're looking for the definition of domination as it applies to a sport, you'll find Jerry Rice's picture there.

Then there were three interesting baseball records: Ty Cobb's .366 lifetime batting average, Cy Young's 511 wins, and Nolan Ryan's 7 no-hitters. Forget about breaking Young's record; ol' Cy played in the days when two day's rest between starts was considered loafing. Not only that, starters finished. Young also has over 700 complete games. He was a great pitcher, but always being around at the end means a decision. Great pitchers like Warren Spahn pitched a lot of their career in the relief pitcher era. So starters don't get some decisions the old-timers got, and they don't get nearly as many starts. This record is going to stay unless someone pitches for 30 seasons.

It's the same thing for Ryan's no-hitters. Ryan planned to go 9 innings every time he went out. A pitcher today figures on going six or seven innings, so he doesn't pace himself the way pitchers used to. If he fatigues sooner, he's more likely to give up a hit. So Ryan's record, while far more attainable than Young's, will stand unless the nature of the game changes.

That being said, why can't anyone hit like Ty Cobb did? In his day, there were lots of incredible hitters. Now seasons come along with relatively few .300 hitters. Yet, team ERA's are higher now than they were in Cobb's day. One reason given is, again, the relief pitcher. No doubt hitters collected cheap hits late in games by a tiring starter. But I suspect the home run also figures in. Consider that the greatest all-time hitters all came in the dead-ball era. Bat control, bunting, hitting them “where they ain't” (as Willie Keeler once said), all were part of a good hitter's repertoire. I don't think hitting is studied the way it was in those days. You can see the fading of the great hitters after the ball got juiced up. Oh, sure, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, and Ted Williams all were great hitters, but with each year there were fewer.

Perhaps we'll see the return of the hitter some day, but it won't be soon.

And then there's Cal Ripken's consecutive games streak of 2632. I grew up hearing how Lou Gehrig's record would never be beaten, and I believed it. Even though athletes were bigger and stronger and sports medicine had made great strides, it just didn't seem that anyone would ever have the kind of dedication combined with great talent to ever touch Gehrig. You need the dedication to play with minor hurts or when the team just stinks. And you need talent to get written into the lineup every day.

What about Dimaggio's 56-game streak? Should it be on the list? Personally, I don't think this one will get beaten either, mostly due to the hitting factors I mentioned above. But there's one more thing about Dimaggio's run that's worth telling.

Dimaggio's streak was broken by the Cleveland Indians. It took three brilliant infield plays, two by Ken Keltner and one by Lou Boudreau to stop him. Had he hit those shots against a lesser infield, the Yankee Clipper's streak would have continued. How long? Well, after being stopped in Cleveland, Dimaggio went on a 16-game streak.

A 73-game hitting streak. I do believe that would have made number one their list.

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