— It was April 8, 1974, when Hank Aaron flicked his wrists and sent the ball sailing over the left-field wall.
It was something he had done hundreds of times before, but this one was special. It was the 715th home run of his career, and it had broken the most-hallowed of all baseball records, a record held by the legendary Babe Ruth, a record that had stood for 39 years.
It was a mark some thought would never be broken, having been unchallenged for so long. Before Aaron, only one player had even managed to give it a serious run, and that player — Willie Mays — finally ran out of gas with 660 homers in 1973.
Aaron would go on to add 40 more home runs to his record, retiring in 1976 with 755. An amazing example of consistency and longevity, Aaron had to average 33 home runs a season over his 23-year career to set the record. If not hopelessly out of reach, his record certainly seemed secure.
Then again, Babe Ruth fans probably thought the same. They couldn’t have predicted Aaron would come along.
And then again, who could have predicted Barry Bonds?
Bonds, the surly slugger whose father Bobby was a contemporary of Aaron’s, brought an incredible combination of raw power, dazzling bat speed, and a surgeon’s eye to the game. Sparked by his amazing 73-homer season in 2001 (another record), he ended Aaron’s home run reign in 2007, and finished his career with 762.
There are plenty of questions about how Bonds attained the home run record, with many people believing he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. (In his trial this year, a jury couldn’t decide if Bonds lied to a grand jury about his drug use, though he was convicted of obstruction of justice in the case.)
But regardless of how Bonds got there, the record remains. Now the only question is will anyone ever break it?
“Seventy-three home runs will probably never be done again,” says Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, a two-time All-Star with 118 home runs in five seasons, “and the (career) home run record will probably never be done again, at least in the next 100 years.”
Maybe so, but as Bonds’ proved, you never know for sure.
Records are made to be broken, the old saying goes. Babe Ruth found out the saying was true, and Hank Aaron predicted it would be, but is that really the case?
Let’s take a look at some of the other great achievements in baseball, and with the help of input from the players themselves, attempt to predict which marks will fall, and which will stand the test of time.
Imagine going 17 years without missing a single day of work. Now Imagine your job description includes turning double plays as base-runners try to knock you on your backside, taking countless sprints around the bases, and dodging the occasional 95-mph fastball aimed at your ribs, knee, elbow, and hands. Now you have an idea what Cal Ripken Jr., who spent most of his career at the demanding position of shortstop, had to go through to break Lou Gehrig’s record.
“In baseball now, you play so hard,” says Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre. “You can pull a hamstring, you can sprain your wrist. There are so many things that go against even being close to that record.
“Even if you do stay healthy, you get tired. To be in the lineup every day, 162 games, is almost unheard of. You might last a couple years, but not 12 or 14 years.”
Ripken broke Gehrig’s 56-year-old record of 2,130 in 1995, then proceeded to add another whopping 501 games to his total.
To put it in perspective, only seven players have even played more than 1,000 games in a row, and the man in third place all-time – Everett Scott – compiled fewer than half as many as Ripken (1,307).
“It’s amazing what Cal Ripken did,” says Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann. “I can’t even put into words how hard that is. To never have anything go wrong. Luck was on his side and he had the determination to go out there and perform every day. You put those things together and it’s amazing what he did.”
Verdict: Will anyone break Ripken’s record? “I don’t see it happening,” says Beltre. We agree.
We’ve included these two together because it’s been 60 years since either happened. It was 1941 when Yankees great Joe DiMaggio set his record. DiMaggio’s rival, Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, hit .406 that same year, and neither mark has been touched since. A Yankee and a Red Sox. Two amazing achievements that haven’t been matched in 60 years. It just seems right to keep them together.
There have been some close calls. Pete Rose compiled a 44-game hitting streak in 1978, and Paul Molitor reached 39 in 1987. In the chase for .400, Tony Gwynn hit .394 in 1994, and Rod Carew hit .388 in 1977. But that’s about it.
There are a number of reasons that will make it difficult for anyone to top either record, including an increasing reliance on specialist relievers out of the bullpen and the intense focus of attention from the modern-day 24-hour news cycle, neither of which DiMaggio or Williams had to face.
“If Ichiro can’t get it, nobody can get it,” says Votto, describing the type of player it would take to break DiMaggio’s streak. “You can’t be a guy who walks, you can’t be a guy that strikes out. You can’t be a guy who is too deep in the order, because you’ll lose opportunities. And with the way the bullpens work now, if you’re at game 40, you’re facing some specialists-times-two, innings six-through-nine, for your last two at-bats. Good luck, you know?”
Beltre agrees. “It would take a contact hitter, a hitter kind of like Ichiro. A guy who can get a dribbler for a hit, who can get a blooper for a hit, a guy who doesn’t walk a lot, but he can get a hit any time.”
As far as hitting .400 goes, it would likely take the opposite kind of hitter, the kind who has a more discerning eye at the plate and is willing to be patient and wait for a good pitch to hit.
“It would take a lot of walks, a lot of walks, and a lot of walks,” says Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. “You gotta make sure you get at least two hits, or one hit and go 1-for-2. You gotta get two hits, or one hit and a lot of walks. Then you could do it.”
Verdict: Either mark could be reached under the right circumstances, but the planets would have to align in an almost unprecedented way. As Votto says, “the pressure media wise and the overall attention will be exponentially more than anything Joe DiMaggio dealt with or Pete Rose dealt with. It’s too much.” That’s probably a big reason neither mark has been touched in 60 years.
The top annual awards for pitchers are named after Cy Young, and for good reason. Playing from 1890-1911, the right-hander not only won 511 games, he actually completed 749 of his 815 career starts (92 percent!).
Clearly, baseball was a far different game when Young pitched, and it’s difficult to imagine a pitcher making 40 or more starts (as Young did 11 times) or winning 30 games (five times) in a single season.
“We don’t pitch nine innings all the time,” says Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, who has thrown 10 complete games in six seasons. “We’ve got set-up guys, we’ve got closers, and I think the teams are more evenly competitive. In order to get 500 wins you’d have to win, like, every start. So that’s not going to happen. (In Cy Young’s era) they’d have 40 or 50 starts a year, and they’d winning 30 or 40 of them.”
Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who has won 107 games in seven seasons, including a league-leading 24 this season, agrees.
“I don’t think Cy Young’s wins will ever be approached,” he says. “I happened to be in the clubhouse the other day, I think it was in L.A., looking at some old-time pictures and I saw a picture of Cy Young. How old did he pitch until? Man, he looked ancient! I don’t think guys can do that anymore and get away with it at this level.”
Verdict: 300 wins is generally considered worthy of automatic induction into the Hall of Fame. 511? That’s just not possible in the modern era.
Nolan Ryan was a tour de force, a frightening force of nature hurling lightning bolts from the mound. He could paint the corner of the strike zone with that nasty fastball, and he could also be a unpredictable with his control, which made him even scarier. Hitters were never comfortable, and it showed on the mound. When Ryan was at his best, he was simply unhittable.
In addition to his talent for pitching, he also was amazingly durable, pitching 27 seasons in the big leagues. Pitching for the California Angels, he threw his first no-hitter on May 5, 1973 at age 26, his second coming just a couple months later. He was 44 years old and pitching for the Texas Rangers when he threw his seventh and final no-hitter.
“That’s pretty tough to do,” says Tampa Bay Rays left-hander David Price. “He was pretty dominant and set some pretty high records up there, and to be honest I don’t think they’re going anywhere.”
No one has come close to Ryan’s no-hit record. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax threw four no-hitters, and no other pitcher has tossed more than three. Does that mean Ryan’s record is safe? Not necessarily.
“I think Verlander could do it,” says Hamels. “I mean, he’s got the stuff. The guys who’ve thrown no-hitters are guys who can throw 98 mph, guys who have four pitches. I think that possibly can happen. It’s a pretty impressive stat, but every generation there are guys who are unbelievable and Verlander is one of them.”
Verlander, 28, who threw the second no-hitter of his career in May, doesn’t dismiss the notion outright, but says there is a lot that is out of the pitcher’s control.
“The difficulties are that a lot of it has to do with luck and you can’t really control that,” he says. “You look at most well-pitched games – two, three, four hits in a game, a complete game shutout – and I’d say of those hits, a couple of them are probably pretty soft hits that just find their way in. That’s the way it goes a lot of times. If a guy is really on and he has good stuff, he’s going to be hard on hitters. That’s where the luck factor comes in. If you have really good stuff for long enough, and you pitch well for a long time, I think that’s how you start accumulating some no-hitters, because every now and again luck is going to be on your side as opposed to against you.”
Verdict: It will take a pitcher with great stuff, unusual durability, and the aforementioned luck, but it is possible this record could be broken. The end of the steroid era could give pitchers an edge, too.
If you play 27 seasons and possess the kind of heat that Nolan Ryan did, you’re going to rack up a lot of strikeouts. But Ryan piled them up at an amazing rate. Ryan led the league in strikeouts 10 times and whiffed at least 300 batters six times, including in 1989 at age 42. By comparison, Verlander leads all major leaguers with 250 strikeouts this season, and the last pitcher to surpass the 300-mark was Randy Johnson, who did it four straight seasons (1999-2002).
Not surprisingly, Johnson is second on the all-time list. But at 4,875, he needed to average 280 K’s a year for three more seasons to top Ryan, which would have had him pitching into his age 48 season. That’s a tall order, even for the Big Unit.
“That just goes to show you (how tough it is),” says Price. “You can’t get away with punching out seven or eight, you’ve got to be 12, 14 every game.”
Verdict: Is the strikeout record unreachable? “You never know,” says Verlander, who has 1,215 strikeouts in six full seasons. “Someone could come along some day and possibly approach that.”
When it comes to enshrinement in Cooperstown, 3,000 hits is considered the magic number for automatic induction. Only 28 batters have ever reached that level, with Yankees star Derek Jeter accomplishing the feat earlier this spring. Jeter, 37, would have to average 170 hits a season and play through his age 44 season to pass Rose.
“Can anyone catch Pete Rose’s hits record? Not unless they play until they’re 50,” laughs Phillips, who has 1,084 hits in 10 seasons. “You’ve gotta get like 250 hits a year to be able to catch that guy. That’s amazing. That’s just dumb.”
Phillips is right. If a player averaged 250 hits over 17 seasons, he would still come up six hits short of Rose. To show how difficult that is, Ichiro is the only player to top 250 hits in the last 81 years, and he only did it once. Tony Gwynn didn’t do it. Wade Boggs didn’t do it. Heck, not even Pete Rose could do it. Rose did it with longevity, averaging 177 hits over his 24 seasons.
Verdict: Can Rose be topped? “(Rose) could flat-out hit,” Phillips says. “Don’t get me wrong, Derek Jeter is a great player, but I really don’t feel like anybody can catch Pete Rose.” We tend to agree.
Shortly after Rickey Henderson broke Lou Brock’s career stolen base record of 938, he brashly called himself “the greatest of all time.” He was only 32, and he was absolutely right.
Henderson would add another 467 steals over the course of his 25-year career, compiling a resume of theft that no player has come close to challenging. In fact, aside from Henderson and Brock, only one other player has stolen more than 900 bases (Billy Hamilton, 914), and the active steals leader is 33-year-old Juan Pierre, who is 852 behind with 554.
Henderson stole early in games, and he stole late in games. He stole in close games, and he irritated opponents by stealing in blowouts. Perhaps most impressively, he stole when everyone knew he was going to steal, and they still couldn’t stop him. Henderson swiped at least 100 bases in three different seasons, including 130 in 1982, the second most in a single season.
To approach Henderson’s record, a player would have to average 70 steals a season for 20 years, a pace that Los Angeles Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos believes is impossible.
“That amount is just ridiculous,” says Bourjos, a second-year player who many consider to be the fastest in the sport. “Nowadays guys don’t even play 20 years, and to maintain your speed over those years? Usually guys will have that (speed) for eight or nine years and then start slowing down.”
Bourjos, who stole 50 bases in Class-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2008, knows about the toll it takes on a player’s body with each dash for the next base, with each dive into the bag, with each collision with an infielder. It not only takes speed to compile a lot of steals, but durability.
“I felt like I was running on every pitch (in 2008),” says Bourjos, “and halfway through the year I was dead-tired.”
In addition to the physical hardships, pitchers are more focused on controlling the running game, scouting reports are better, and catchers are stronger and quicker getting rid of the ball.
If it were going to happen, it would take a special player who not only compiles hits, but also walks a lot (Henderson is second all-time in walks with 2,190). And it would take a physical freak who not only stays healthy throughout a long career, but does not lose his speed.
Verdict: Is it possible? We’re going with Bourjos’ take: “Stealing 1,400 bags? I just don’t see that happening.”