Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Favorite Sports Records

The twin explosions over the last twenty years of excessive media coverage on the one hand, and sophisticated statistical analysis on the other, have had the effect of rendering many of the most iconic old records and feats far less prominent in the average serious fan's psychological relation to whatever game is under consideration than they were formerly. Even into the 1970s and 80s books and articles about the greatest moments in sports focused on regular season games or minor tournaments/events/races in which records had been set, milestones reached, or some unusual feat accomplished, as much as playoff games or major championship contests. Tournaments and playoffs of course made up a much smaller portion of the season in most major sports than they do now, and as such the emphasis on them was not as all-consuming. There were also fewer teams and fewer players to follow in professional sports, and either no television or radio coverage or far less than than there is now, which made written accounts of games, and their statistics, the primary means of evaluating the lay of the season, and of history. Before television I presume following (and playing) college sports was more akin to following and playing high school sports is for most people. You might hear about guys or teams in other leagues or on the other side of the state who are supposed to be great but you only really know anything about the people your own team plays against (Of course now even all the top high school quarterbacks/point guards all over the country are great friends and text message each other constantly--I would prefer they didn't, but hey, we all have to think of and carry ourselves as professionals now). Again, written accounts of games most people had not seen made icons out of Red Grange, the Four Horseman, Wrong Way Riegels, and the rest of them. Also with regard to baseball especially there has been an increased sense that records dating from before integration in 1947 at least, if not some years after that, ought not to be considered legitimate, or perhaps even relevant, to the modern fan.

The first inkling I got that things had changed drastically was the relative lack of fanfare in 2004 when Ichiro Suzuki broke George Sisler's 84 year-old record of 257 hits in a season, which as an impressionable child had seemed to me one of the most awesome and unreachable records in the annals of the game, right up with Hack Wilson's 190 (since upgraded to 191) RBIs in 1930, or Chief Wilson's 36 triples in 1912. Guys like Pete Rose would hit (so it seemed) like maniacs all year and barely crack 210 hits. Rod Carew could only get to 239 when he hit .388 in 1977. When Wade Boggs had 240 hits and a .368 average in 1985 I thought at the time it was one of the most incredible statistical seasons I would ever see in my lifetime. By 2004, however, getting 262 hits in itself just wasn't that impressive to the sport's savviest analysts. Suzuki's chase for the record was generally not regarded as a major story in the media coverage that September, certainly in comparison with what it would have been at any other time in baseball history up to the last decade. He finished 7th in the MVP voting. 225 of the hits were singles, and he only drew 49 walks, which are the holy grail of the new statistical analysis, though if you get 262 hits 49 walks puts you on base 311 times which still gets your OBP over .400. He also only scored 101 runs despite all those times on base (On a side note, the all time record for runs in a season, 177 by Babe Ruth in 1920 or '21, or, if you want to go way back, 192 by Sliding Billy Hamilton in 1894, have not been approached in the last 70 years. The recent high is Jeff Bagwell with 152, in 2000.) (On another side note, the status of George Sisler, who finished with a .340 career average, hit over .400 twice, notched 2, 812 hits, and was frequently ranked as the 2nd greatest 1st baseman of all time behind Lou Gehrig even into the 70s, has also taken a battering in the post-Bill James consciousness revolution, to the point where he is now almost considered one of the more dubious players in the Hall of Fame. Sisler never walked much--his career high was 49--and he had poor power numbers apart from his 1919-22 peak when he hit lots of doubles and triples and 12-19 home runs a year. He had some kind of eye problem which caused him to miss the whole season in 1923 and which affected his power though he continued to rack up hits and hit .330 for another 7 or 8 years, though one of the points his detractors make is that in an 8 team league in a big-hitting area, this relegated him to being merely an average 1st baseman for the bulk of his career).

My favorite records tend to be those that have stood for a long time, seem perfectly possible to break under current conditions, and are indeed frequently challenged, but manage to hold. Some of them are:

Most Career Grand Slams: Lou Gehrig, 23. Manny Ramirez is currently 2nd all time with 21, and A-Rod is tied for 4th with 18, so the record is definitely under threat, but unlike most cumulative records, it is not inevitable that Manny Ramirez will hit those last 2 grand slams even if he remains a regular player for the next 5 years. The rest of the top 5 includes Eddie Murray (19), and Wille McCovey and Robin Ventura (!)(18), so the record as you can see has been much approached in modern times without falling.

Most Consecutive Wins, One Season, AL: 16, held by Walter Johnson (1912), Smoky Joe Wood (1912), Lefty Grove (1931) and Schoolboy Rowe (1934). I've always been fascinated by this record because it come up frequently in older books and oral histories of the eras concerned. It's a pretty modest total--by comparison the NL and overall record for a single season is 19 (and under current rules would be 20) and 24 over 2 seasons (by Carl Hubbell, the dominant pitcher in the NL of the 1930s, over Dizzy Dean in my opinion, whom it dismays me to see is being denigrated in some quarters as a second-rate Hall of Famer now--such people can have no proper sense of that era, I think!). The AL record over 2 seasons is just 17, I believe. But the single season 16 was a much celebrated one in 1912. Johnson set the mark early in the year and then when Wood got to 14 or so later in the summer the two had an immortal showdown at Fenway Park with Johnson 'defending' the record before an overflow crowd at Fenway Park--Wood won, I believe 1-0, though after tying the streak he lost a couple of games later. The famously temperamental Grove lost his bid for win #17 1-0 on a misplaced fly ball by a rookie and tore the locker room apart in a rage after the game. I don't remember any exciting stories connected with Schoolboy Rowe's streak, but he's made one of the quartet for 75 years now. This is an interesting record because somebody whips off 14 in a row every few years and 15 in a row about once a decade. Roger Clemens had several such streaks in his career, including one year, '98 I think, where he was on a 15 game run when the season ended.

Many Team Records are Highly Interesting. Derek Jeter got a lot of attention last summer when he broke the Yankees' all time hits record, which had been held by Lou Gehrig. It was only around 2,700, which is somewhat lower than I thought it would be considering the franchise's fabled history. The Detroit Tigers, for example, have had 3 players get more hits than that with them, as do the Pittsburgh Pirates (the Yankees do have 8 players over 2,000, though the Pirates do also). The A's all-time franchise leader going back to 1901 and covering Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Oakland is Bert Campaneris, with 1,882 (Bucketfoot Al Simmons is second, with 1,827). The Mets all-time leader is the career utility man Ed Kranepool (1,418), 230 hits clear of runner-up Cleon Jones. David Wright, who is still quite young, is currently in 10th place and 435 hits back, so he should break it within 3 years, but strange stuff happens to people with the Mets, I don't know. On the pitching side, the Red Sox all time record for wins is a pretty meager 192, shared by Roger Clemens and Cy Young. The dependable but never more than 4th starter Tim Wakefield is 3rd at 175 (He may have 10-13 more wins left in him, but at age 44 going into next season, 17 seems like a stretch). The Phillies meanwhile, who have been generally horrible through most of their history, boast 3 pitchers with 237 or more wins. One of the more impressive of these team records by the way is that Clemens also shares the Red Sox record for shutouts with Young, at 38, which though most of those came from 1986-92, is a remarkable number for a modern player. On the Yankee list for example, Whitey Ford and Red Ruffing are 1-2 in shutouts (as well as wins) with 45 and 40, while Andy Petitte, who is 3rd on the wins list, has a grand total of 3 shutouts in his entire Yankee career (among other notable recent--meaning in my lifetime--Yankees, Ron Guidry notched 26, Mike Mussina 8, and Roger Clemens, who won 93 games for the Yankees overall, 2). But I could go on with this forever.

Note on Joe DiMaggio's 56-game Hitting Streak. No one has really ever come close to breaking this record, and there doesn't seem to me any inherent reason why this should be so. DiMaggio himself also had a 61 game hitting streak in the minor leagues, which indicates to me that it is not that impossible of a feat; he was a great hitter, but there have certainly been other players with the ability to challenge the record. There is, or at least has been in the past, a certain sentiment I think against anybody really breaking the record; it is the only significant record I can think of that the beloved DiMaggio holds (his record of playing on 9 championship teams in a 13 year career is probably the highest championship percentage of all time, but Yogi Berra, in an 18-year career, was on 10 World Series winners), and of course he set in that halcyon summer of '41, the last summer, not of American innocence certainly, but definitely of an old and lost America that, however, fewer and fewer living people have any recollection of. The psychic power of the record should fade, all of the things that DiMaggio symbolizes will grow increasingly obscure and meaningless to most people, and somebody will make a run at the record unencumbered by all the emotional fan and media baggage that the record has held up to now.

I haven't even gotten to my favorite football records. Another post! This will close out the postings for 2009. I shattered my old record of number of posts by nearly 30, though the quality I feel was even more uneven than usual. I have even less time of late, with Christmas, etc, for writing, but hopefully now that vacation is over I can be back on a regular 2.4 postings a week schedule, at least until I go to Florida in February.

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