Made to be Broken
BY DEB SEYMOUR
Baseball records were made to be broken. That’s one of those truisms people recite, but they don’t always believe.
Some records or streaks that seemed over the years like they probably wouldn’t be broken eventually were, with Iron Horse Lou Gehrig’s consecutive 2130 games played ending in April 1939 – and ultimately surpassed by Cal Ripken, Jr. in September 1998, when the end arrived of his own 2632-game streak.
Imagine living in the period between 1939 and the year 1995 (which was the year in which Ripken actually passed Gehrig in consecutive games played), and being a baseball fan. Would you ever have thought someone would exceed Gehrig’s streak? Say that in, oh, 1956, for example, you had asked the average baseball fan “will any player ever break Gehrig’s streak?” – would they have responded “definitely, yes?” More likely, the rather automatic answer would have been “no.”
Well, there are records and streaks that were made to be broken. And then, there are those that probably never will be. Part of that is due to how the game changes over time, because every little evolution in style of play or rule change or league realignment or even stadium upgrade impacts the odds of certain records being broken.
Yes, even changes to stadium standards can potentially impact player records. Back in the early days of organized baseball, there were no large groups making up stadium grounds crews like there are today. The grass wasn’t particularly well manicured in most cases, and ballfields were subject to the elements without the careful, daily maintenance we’ve come to see more recently.
That meant both in the infield, but particularly the outfield, players at times had to dig through tall grass or weeds – or both – in order to make game plays on a regular basis.
And so what automatically springs to mind is the question of errorless game streaks for outfielders, because you’d then expect those streaks, or records, would have to be more recent – and not from the days of somewhat unkempt grass growing in the nether reaches of the outfield.
Turns out, that expectation is correct. The holder of the NL record for longest outfield errorless streak is Darren Lewis, who played for the San Francisco Giants in the 1990s. Lewis went errorless from July 13, 1991 through June 24, 1994 for a total of 369 consecutive errorless games played.
In the AL, the holder of the record is even more recent in Robbie Grossman, who had 440 consecutive errorless games from June 14, 2018 through July 8, 2022 for a combination of the Minnesota Twins, Oakland A’s, and Detroit Tigers.
Robbie Grossman #8 of the Detroit Tigers commits a fielding error trying to attempting to catch a fly ball hit by Luis Robert of the Chicago White Sox in the eighth at Guaranteed Rate Field on July 10, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
It can’t simply be assumed these records were earned just in the past 30 years due to significant improvements in field conditions; but that’s certainly likely to have been a factor.
Some records or streaks are more surprising than others. This season, although far from the New York Yankees’ finest or best, continued a streak of 31 years of finishing over .500. The only other two over-.500 streaks across the four major American sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL) to surpass this, to date, are held by the New York Yankees themselves, at 39 seasons from 1926-1964, and the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, at 32 seasons from 1952-1983.
Last year, when Aaron Judge broke the AL home run record held by Roger Maris, slamming 62 bombs to surpass Maris’ 61, it was, indeed, considered quite a feat. But since the 1961 days of Roger Maris, MLB has experienced the steroid era, at least one “juiced ball” era (with multiple studies having been conducted on baseballs within recent memory), and the new “homer or bust” hitting era – so it’s almost surprising Maris’ AL record wasn’t broken sooner.
A footnote to the home run record, however: although the weight and design of the baseballs hit by Judge in 2022 were not within his control, the now-Yankee captain hit 62 homers while PED free; and that, at least in some baseball circles, counts for something.
The record most often cited as unlikely to be broken (especially in this decade of starting pitchers typically only pitching five or six innings) is that held by Johnny Vander Meer, who pitched back-to-back no-hitters in 1938.
Johnny Vander Meer of the Cincinnati Reds pitches in a circa 1940s game. Vander Meer played for the Reds from 1937-49. (Photo by National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MLB via Getty Images)
Although trends tend to go in cycles in baseball – as in everything else in life – it would be difficult to foresee an era again in which pitchers regularly pitch complete nine-inning games; yet even if that were to somehow become the case, two consecutive no-hit games stood as a record from 1938 all the way up to this “no pitching the third time through the order” era in which we now find ourselves. Hence, not an easy feat to accomplish.
Pitching staffs have managed to combine for no-hitters several times a season as of late; but single-pitcher no-hitters have become as rarified as the air at Coors Field. Domingo German managed one this year against the Oakland A’s, but there hadn’t been a perfecto since 2012 prior to that – although in 2012 there were three, pitched by Philip Humber, Matt Cain, and Felix Hernandez. 2010 saw two perfect games, pitched by Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay; but even two within one season has been unusual throughout the history of MLB, which has seen but 24 perfect games in total.
Another record that seems unbreakable in this day and age is the Joe DiMaggio 56-game hit streak. Hypothetically, it would still be possible to break Joltin’ Joe’s record, but as batting averages across the league have dropped precipitously this season and the baseball seems to change weight and design every year, to find the necessary consistency it would require to hit safely in 57 straight games would be truly something.
But here’s a hitting record that’s more intriguing, perhaps. If I asked you to guess who holds the record for most RBI in a season, who would you think of? Barry Bonds? Manny Ramirez? Mickey Mantle? Ted Williams?
All good guesses, but none of them correct. The answer is Hack Wilson, who batted in 191 runs in 1930. This is a great piece of trivia, because Wilson’s record is almost a century old; and the only player since who’s even come close was, indeed, Manny Ramirez – with 165 RBI in 1999.
1999: Outfielder Manny Ramirez #24 of the Cleveland Indians poses for a portrait on Photo Day during Spring Training at the Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Florida. (Photo Credit: Vincent Laforet /Allsport)
With Ronald Acuna Jr. recently hitting the milestone of 40 home runs and 70 stolen bases, one has to ask the question of whether any player will ever break Rickey Henderson’s record of 130 steals in 1982 and career total of 1406 stolen bases.
The larger bases this season did seem to encourage more steals – or at least, more attempts; and yet there are full teams whose total number of steals didn’t come close to Henderson’s record 130. The last player to even attempt 130 steals was Vince Coleman in 1985. Even with the larger bases, will we ever see any single player attempt that many steals in a single season again?
As mentioned earlier, we seem to live in the “all or nothing” age of home run or strikeout, which is one reason MLB regulated fielder shifts in 2023 – to try to increase the numbers of BABIP (batted balls in play) over the numbers seen in recent years.
But nevertheless, in all likelihood no player any time soon will beat Joe Sewell’s 1932 record of fewest strikeouts in a season, at just three strikeouts over 576 plate appearances – the lowest number of any player in any season with at least 502 qualified trips to the plate.
And then there are the records you really don’t boast about as a player or a team. Every year, there are teams or individual players who break a record (or come close to it) for a baseball phenomenon that won’t win you anything.
One of these is Ron Hunt’s 50 hit by pitches in 1971. The only player to be hit more times in a season than Hunt was Hughie Jennings, who was hit 51 times in a season prior to the founding of the AL. HOF’er Craig Biggio was a notorious hbp player; but even he topped out at 34 plunkings in 1997 – nowhere near the 50 or 51 mark.
There are as many baseball records as the day is long, and we certainly can’t enumerate all of them here. But this brief summary should keep you in the game for baseball trivia night – at least until any of the records described herein are broken.