What are the greatest sports records in history? Which ones will never be broken? Is it possible to compare records across eras, or, for that matter, across sports?
A quartet of analytics professors, all of them sports fans, have attempted to answer these daunting questions, and some of their answers will surprise you, and, quite possibly, infuriate you. We’ll get to all that.
Anyway, I was with them every step of the way. O.K., maybe not every step, not when they were making their advanced statistical calculations, which involved extensive use of the Analytic Hierarchy Process. (What ... you don’t know what that is?) No, for that they didn’t need one J. McCallum, who five decades ago at Muhlenberg College earned a D in Probability and Statistics, popularly known as “math for morons.”
My involvement came about because of Sports Illustrated story I wrote in 1990 about sports records. When they began the project two years ago, the professors called me to serve as the “objective expert,” to, as they put it, “critique our hierarchy, provide the necessary judgments, and review and validate the records that we considered.”
I agreed to come onboard as long as I could bring a friend, Thomas Hansen, nicknamed Nus. (Long story not for this space.) Nus is better versed in sports history and records than any person I have ever met, and within five minutes of our first meeting the professors— Matt Liberatore, Bret Myers and Bob Nydick, all of Villanova, and Howard Weiss of Temple—shared that opinion.
The call for our participation reinforces the fact that some non-numerical judgments are necessary before the number crunching begins. What are the most relevant criteria? What factors should be considered and what relative weight should be assigned to them to assure the most accurate results? The vast changes that take place in sports—equipment and rules, size and ability of players, ever-evolving strategies—mandate a general knowledge of sports that goes beyond numbers. Probably the most significant contribution Nus and I made was reducing the weight given to what the authors called “notoriety,” or how well known the record is. We didn’t think it was that important since some of the most notable records are little known.
People in the sports biz are loath to pronounce records as “unbeatable.” In that 1990 story I harangued Peter Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau before he finally offered a record that he could say with near certainty would never be broken—in 1879, William White of the Cincinnati Red Stockings completed 74 games, every one he started. “Pretty sure that won’t be broken,” Hirdt deadpanned. The major league leaders in complete games this season had four, relief pitchers being all but unknown until the last 50 years or so.
In my 1990 story I confidently listed “Jack Nicklaus’s victories in 20 majors” as the No. 1 unbeatable mark in the category of career records. It still stands, but at the time I was blissfully unaware of a 14-year-old ball-striker named Tiger Woods, who had not yet begun a crusade that might’ve dethroned Jack except for numerous extenuating circumstances.
Back in 1990, Bob Beamon’s 29’2 ½’’ long jump from the 1968 Olympics was still a marvel, but I did have the good sense to put it only third in the single-event category, theorizing that, like all track records, it would fall someday. The following year it did when Mike Powell jumped two inches farther.
I missed completely on my single-season “will never be beat.” I had Babe Ruth’s 1920 .847 slugging percentage, a fairly obscure category determined by dividing total bases by total at-bats. But Barry Bonds (who shows up in several places later in this piece) put up an .863 in 2001.
Even two records included in the Liberatore-Myers-Nydick-Weiss analysis were broken after their August 31, 2013 cutoff—Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal in 1970 (their 18th best record) and Tom Brady’s 50 season touchdown passes in 2007 (62nd). The new standards, both set by Denver Broncos late in the 2013 season, are Matt Prater (64-yard field goal) and Peyton Manning (55 TD passes).
While my 1990 story ranged all over the sports map—I included marks from horse racing, track, golf and swimming—the academic study covered only baseball, basketball, football and hockey. The authors decided they could do a more complete job if they only covered that territory.
I wouldn’t presume to deconstruct the advanced methodology employed by the analytics experts, but I can tell you they considered everything, things like how long a record has stood and what percentage it is better than the mark right behind it. It took them months to decide on the proper “hierarchy” of considerations and several more months to do the calculations.
Interestingly, they decided not to divide the records into “single-event,” “single-season,” and “career,” which is the way I did it in 1990. This presumes (I presume) their confidence in their methodology.
One caveat: The authors do not make the outright claim that their rankings are the final word. Carefully, very carefully, they note that their study is actually a comparison to a past statistical analysis of sports records, one done in 1987 by Bruce Golden and Edward Wasil. But they do make judgments, they do have rankings and they will ruffle some analytical feathers.
Links to the study, as well as my SI story, can be found at the end. You can skip there now if you want, but I would suggest reading this first before attacking their analytics-heavy paper.
Herewith some highlights:
• The authors ranked 65 records. The last one to make the cut, interestingly, is Bonds’s record of 73 home runs in 2001. Why so low? Well, it’s not because of performance-enhancing drugs. The authors decided, with the blessing of Nus and me, that PEDs were simply too difficult to fit into the calculation. Who could be sure which players were taking them? Plus, the advantage given to a PED user is often not that much different than the advantage some athletes get by playing in a specific era. For example, Cy Young, who shows up a couple times later, pitched for 22 years in an era when pitchers were expected to finish games, not go hard for six innings and hand the ball to the bullpen.
Bonds’s record is low because it suffers from comparative performances. When he hit his 73 in 2001, Sammy Sosa hit 64 dingers, Luis Gonzalez hit 57. Alex Rodriguez hit 52, and eight other players hit over 40. Though Babe Ruth no longer has the season home run standard, it’s clear that the 60 he hit in 1927 is far more impressive than Bonds’s 73, given the fact that it was recorded in an era when the home run total of most “power hitters” was in the teens. And let’s not forget that the season home run standard of 61 held by good ol’ Roger Maris—Mr. Asterisk himself—stood for more years (40) than did Ruth’s (34).
• More on Bonds. (Sorry if you Bonds-haters have had enough.) His slugging percentage record is rated as the 50th best record, and he’s on the list three other times—for career home runs (61st), season walks (64th) and, well, something we won’t tell you until later.
• A number of NFL running backs make appearances, including Adrian Peterson (No. 60 for single-game rushing yards), LaDainian Tomlinson (No. 53 and 63 for season points and season touchdowns), Emmit Smith (No. 55 for career rushing yards) and Eric Dickerson (No. 57 for season rushing yards). But the highest-ranked running backs are old school. Gayle Sayers is 23rd for single game points scored (36) and—ahem—O.J. Simpson is 45th for his season average rushing yards of 143.1, set in 1973, 22 years before he appeared in a Los Angeles County Superior courtroom.
• Simpson is one of several superstars who make the ranks. We’ll get to them. Perhaps more interesting are the not-quite-as-famous players who have rated records.
Tops on this list, as far as I’m concerned, is cornerback Dick “Night Train” Lane, who has the 14th best record for his 14 season interceptions. Lane did it as a rookie for the Los Angeles Rams in 1952, though his Hall of Fame career was mostly built with the Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions. The length that a record has stood is significant, and this one is 63 years and counting. And it’s more amazing considering that Lane did in a 12-game season, meaning that he averaged more than one pick per game.
Another good record is held by Dutch Leonard, whose absurd season ERA record is rated 20th. The Boston Red Sox southpaw posted a 0.961 in 1914. (He shouldn’t be confused with another Dutch Leonard, Emil John Leonard, who was a right-handed knuckleballer.)
But even Leonard’s record, opines Nus, should be put to the relative-performance test. Given the other low ERAs in Dutch’s memorable season, Pedro Martinez’s 1.74 in 2000 is probably a better overall achievement. It’s just not a record.
Two others from the almost-famous list—Dodgers reliever Eric Gagne is 43rd for his consecutive saves (84) in 2004, and Morten Andersen is 47th for his career points (2,544) as a placekicker for six NFL teams.
• Here’s a familiar name, though one not destined for the Basketball Hall of Fame—A.C. Green, whose record of 1,192 consecutive NBA games played is rated 27th. To state the obvious, yes, Cal Ripken’s consecutive streak of games started (2,632) is rated higher, at 17.
Ripken’s mark is part of the holy triad of best-known records, along with Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game consecutive hitting streak. (Beamon’s long jump record used to be in that class.) Joe D. and Wilt do make the top 10, DiMaggio being third and Wilt seventh.
Why so high for the Yankee Clipper? It’s obvious—75 years after he set it in 1941, the closest anyone has come to it is Pete Rose’s 44-game streak in 1978. Had Joe. D. not come along (and what would “The Graduate” be had he not?) Wee Willie Keeler could very well be in here—the jockey-sized rightfielder hit in 44 straight games to begin the 1897 season (he also had a hit in his last 1896 at-bat), meaning that his mark stood for 44 years before DiMaggio broke it.
Wilt’s record would probably be ranked higher had Kobe Bryant not scored 81 points in a 2006 game. It’s not likely that three digits will ever be reached again, but perhaps on some future winter night when Steph Curry is hitting everything and the opposing defense is porous ... who knows?
• A few other super-duper stars did not make the top 10. Ted Williams almost did, ranking 11th for his career on-base percentage of 0.482, a list that includes precious few modern-era players, and, interestingly, only two righthanded hitters (Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx) among its top 17. Jerry Rice is all over the place but not in the top 10—he’s 41, 48, 54 and 58 for various receiving marks. Michael Jordan is 29th for his career points per game (30.12), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is 39th for his career points (38,387).
Some immortals didn’t make it at all. There’s no Jim Brown among the running backs, for example. And there’s little doubt that Bill Russell, he of the 11 championship rings, would turn up his nose at a list on which he does not appear, while Chamberlain (two rings) is on it four other times besides the 100-point game (23rd for season scoring average of 50.4, 25th for single-game rebounds of 55, 30th for season rebound average of 27.2, and 48th for career rebounds for game with 22.89).
“Our analysis does not, nor should it for that matter, settle to everyone’s satisfaction as to what are the best sports records,” write the authors. “However, it provides a framework to structure the debate. Using this framework facilitates a process that can lead to an improved model and/or more confidence in the results.”
So, now, here are their top 10 in reverse order:
10. Norm Van Brocklin, Los Angeles Rams, single-game pass yards, 554, 1951, against the New York Yanks.
That is an extraordinary single-event record because, with the exception of Y.A. Tittle’s 505-yard game in 1962 for the New York Giants against the Washington Redskins, most of the other 17 500-yard QBs played within the last 10 years. The Van Brocklin record brings up another point—the lightning-in-a-bottle nature of some single-event records. Van Brocklin was a legit QB, as are many of the others (Tom Brady, Boomer Esiason, both Peyton and Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Marino, Phil Simms, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers) on the 500-yard list. But in second place behind Van Brocklin is one Matt Schaub, an undistinguished signal-caller who, with 28 more yards in a 2012 game against the Jaguars, would have the record held by NVB.
Which raises the question: Is a record any less legitimate because it’s held by a mediocre player?
Answer: ABSOLUTELY NOT. That unpredictability is part of the delight of sports records.
9. Wayne Gretzky, career assists, 1,963.
Isn’t it nice when the greatest record from the game’s greatest player has to do with distributing, not scoring?
8. Cy Young, career complete games, 749.
As I said before, perhaps nothing illustrates the changes in era more than this record since complete games have been steadily declining.
7. Wilt’s 100-point game, 1962, against the New York Knicks.
You’ve heard the story. On an otherwise unremarkable late-season game, without live video, contested at an arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Warriors center connected on 36 of 63 field goal attempts, and, most remarkably (since he was a horrid foul shooter), 28 of 32 free throws.
6. Cy Young’s career win record of 511, 1890–1911.
The record holds up partly because it is so statistically superior to second place, which is Walter Johnson’s 417.
5. Oscar Robertson, season triple-doubles, 41, 1962.
It’s actually surprising that the Big O had “only” 41 since he averaged a triple-double for the season (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists). That fact is nothing less than startling, but averaging a triple-double for the season is an achievement not a record.
Now, are there extenuating circumstances? Absolutely. Oscar’s Cincinnati Royals, who averaged 123.1 points per game in 1961–62, were one of four teams to go over the 120 mark in a nine-team league. In last season’s NBA, only three teams in a 30-team league averaged more than 105 points, and 15 teams averaged fewer than 100. Thus, in Oscar’s day, there was a lot more scoring, so there were a lot more opportunities for points, rebounds (on misses) and assists; he got this mark in the same season that Wilt scored his 100. Russell Westbrook, who has the game, the athleticism and the inclination potentially to register a triple-double every night, led the NBA last season with only 11.
But, look, 41 triple-doubles is still astounding, no matter how the game is played, and it was achieved by arguably the game’s most versatile player ever.
4. Jim Bottomley, St. Louis Cardinals, single game RBIs, 12, 1924.
I’m not a fan of Bottomley’s feat being ranked so high and not because the record is obscure. That’s fine. What I don’t like is (a.) the record was subsequently tied when another Cardinals outfielder, Mark Whiten (pronounced WIT-ten as in “Hard Hittin’ Whiten,” his nickname) drove in 12 runs in a 1993 game on the road against the Cincinnati Reds, and (b.) the second-best single-game RBI mark is only one fewer.
But what someone likes is not the point. Put to the mathematical test, Bottomley’s standard was set—and though it has been tied it, has not been BROKEN—91 years ago, and, further, at the time I was significantly better than the existing standard, which was nine, set by infielder Heinie Zimmerman in 1911.
3. DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
2. Nolan Ryan, career no-hitters, 7.
The Ryan Express also makes the list at 31 for his 5,715 career strikeouts, and one might think that is a better record. But here’s the thing—no-hitters, even by great pitchers, are rare. Second to Ryan in that category is one Sandy Koufax, who had only four no-nos. Bob Feller and Cy Young had three, and all of the other greats on the list (which includes Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn, Jim Bunning, Randy Johnson and Roy Halladay) had two. Seven is a big, big number.
And the record rated No. 1? Drum roll please ...
1. Barry Bonds, career intentional walks, 688.
O.K., you’re going to get mad. You might not like Bonds. You might not like intentional walks. I didn’t like the record finishing first, either, and Nus provided a whole host of reasons why he didn’t like it, this among them.
“If Bonds had Willie Mays and Willie McCovey surrounding him instead of, say, Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent,” says Nus, “I don't think he winds up with 688 intentional walks.” (Not that Aurilia and Kent were bad; they just weren’t Mays and McCovey.)
I concur. Still, as was the case with Oscar and triple-doubles, Bonds’s preeminence in this category is nothing less than astounding. In second place with career walks is Albert Pujols with just 296 (at the time the study was compiled.) Hank Aaron had only 293 (though, to return to Nus’s point), he often had Eddie Matthews hitting behind him.)
The authors themselves might’ve preferred a sexier record by a more beloved character in first. But they did what statisticians do—they took pains to figure out their parameters, plugged in the numbers and lived with the results.
Here is the entire paper with much more mathematical explanation. Enjoy.