By Marty Appel
These are some thoughts about milestones, and how we in sports love them so much, even if at times, they are a bit of a stretch.
The Yankees recently closed Yankee Stadium, and what do you know, but in the final month of the season, Derek Jeter passed first Babe Ruth, and then Lou Gehrig, to become the player with the most hits in the history of Yankee Stadium.
Most people didn’t even know such a record had been kept! And in fact, it really hadn’t been, because if it was, we would know the hit leaders at every ballpark, wouldn’t we? And the home run leaders and the RBI leaders and the suicide squeeze leaders.
But everyone seemed to be happy with this discovery, and anytime you can roll out names like Ruth and Gehrig and have a modern day player pass their achievements, it’s good PR for the modern game and fun for the fans. In fact, fans at Yankee Stadium went crazy with their digital cameras, creating the blinking Christmas tree effect on every pitch to Jeter as he prepared to first tie and then pass the records.
Nobody can do this like the Yankees can of course, but it whetted our appetites to know who the hit leaders would be at Sportsman’s Park and Connie Mack Stadium and the Polo Grounds and Sicks Stadium! (Sicks Stadium is easy: the Seattle Pilots played one season there and Tommy Davis led the team with 123 hits. The others are tougher).
The thing about records, particularly in baseball, is that as the game ages, we have to get more creative with them.
For instance, if Major League Baseball was 10 years old, breaking a single season record in season 11 wouldn’t be that tough – it would just be the best mark in 11 years – a one-in-eleven chance.
Breaking a record in the 50th season is tougher – a one-in-fifty chance that the accomplishment would be better than any in the previous 49.
But Major League Baseball is now 133 years old. So while single season marks can fall, the odds are pretty slim that they won’t. Lifetime achievements suffer the same fate: yes, someone may come along and break the all-time stolen base record (Rickey Henderson’s), but those things take a long time and are tough to promote. Baseball’s PR machine loves single season accomplishments.
And so it is necessary to get creative. A lot of accomplishments are going to take the form of “most in 40 years, or most since 1987, or third highest total in team history.” And that’s fine; anything to create and sustain fan interest, create a new collectible, establish a modern milestone – is good marketing. But it is also likely that the superlatives will be fewer and far between. We will patiently wait to see if Barry Bonds’s lifetime home run total falls, (hellooooo A-Rod!), and suddenly it seems unlikely that we will see his season home run total surpassed. That one may became a sustained blemish in the record book – if the steroid accusations ever prove true – far beyond our lifetimes.
My favorite record by the way, because of its obscurity and its chance of being surpassed, is held by Mel Ott, the slugging outfielder of the New York Giants, who was also, by all accounts, a terrific guy.
Ott led his team – the Giants – in home runs in 17 consecutive seasons. That means staying with one team for that long a stretch, and never having an injury-plagued season, or suffering the fluke of a one-time slip where a hot player has a better year.
The best Babe Ruth could do in terms of leading the Yankees in home runs, was eight, one of them a tie with Gehrig. Barry Bonds’s best was 10, and of course, that was for the Giants, were Ott’s run was the club record, unless you split it by New York/San Francisco – another convenient milestone trick.
Hank Aaron led the Braves in 11 straight seasons, covering Milwaukee and Atlanta. You begin to see why Ott’s record was so special – 17 is a huge lead over the most superlative home run hitters in the game’s history!
Reggie Jackson and most of the more modern players didn’t spend enough consecutive seasons with a team to have a chance at something like this – and Reggie, believe it or not never, not ever, in his career, had two consecutive seasons of 30 home runs or more. For a guy with 563 dingers, that is hard to imagine. But as Casey Stengel used to say, “you could look it up!” And that one isn’t hard to look up!
The point is, sometimes you have to do some digging, be creative, and the findings that emerge can be fun and challenging.
Anyone care to research most strikeouts in each major league ballpark by a pitcher? You can’t just say “Nolan Ryan.” You have to think of a pitcher who played in the same ballpark for a long stretch – like Walter Johnson at Griffith Stadium – and rule out the ones who switched parks, like John Smoltz in Atlanta, (Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field), but not Steve Carlton whose 15 Phillies seasons were all at Veterans Stadium.
Have at it. And don’t forget to find the baseball that breaks “the record” and get it signed on the sweet spot.