A decade ago, I wrote a story for Sports Illustrated about my great uncle, a former Major League Baseball player and member of the Hall of Fame: Johnny Evers, of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame. The story was transformative for me in many ways, unlocking a past I had only understood enough to brag about, which is to say hardly at all. The work still lives with me. But here is a tangential point: In the course of researching and reporting the story, I spent time in Cooperstown at the Hall of Fame, a truly magical place (whether or not you have an enshrined relative you never met, but especially if you do). Every museum is a time machine if you allow it to be, and I very much did. And do. Always.
I was given access to the Hall’s research area, a spellbinding backroom full of what seemed like 100 times the material on display to the public. There was a treasure trove relating to my uncle, who was born in 1881, played in the big leagues from 1902-’17, participated in five World Series and most famously, was immortalized in a poem that outlives him significantly. Among the items preserved was a pair of game-worn baseball spikes of indeterminate size, packed carefully in a box. The shoes were made of crusty leather atop a hard sole, with long (scary) metal spikes attached. They looked like perhaps a primitive gardening tool, but certainly not athletic footwear. It was impossible to look at them and not think: Somebody played major league baseball in these things?
Likewise, there were many pictures of my uncle in full uniform, with a tiny mitt stuffed over the fingers of his left hand, barely enlarging it – a wardrobe item designed only marginally to enhance the fielder’s ability to catch balls, and more practically to protect his hand should any catching occur. Again, the thought: Somebody played major league baseball using this glove?
These images returned to conscious thought this week in the roiling aftermath of Aaron Judge’s 62nd home run Tuesday night in Arlington, Texas. Not roiling as to the significance of the moment, or its emotional purity – 62 home runs in a single MLB season is a milestone deserving of sanctity and joy and Judge is a manifestly great – dare one say Ruthian? – baseball player. As ever when it comes to cherished sports (or uncherished sports records, but single season home runs is just about as cherished as it gets), the unvarnished celebration of this moment abated quickly and attention was turned aggressively to comparing it to the marks it surpassed, and those that it did not.
This led to SEO-on-steroids headlines and posts that sucked in some combination of the names Judge, Maris, McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and Ruth (and even a little Mantle, for good measure) and launched impassioned discussion as to the proper framing of Judge’s record. The New York Times’s Scott Miller wrote a good story describing the issues in this baseball-centric discussion, which are familiar to most fans of a certain age, or possibly many ages. (But it all goes far beyond baseball).
In short: 95 years ago in 1927, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in a season, a record that stood for 34 years, until surpassed by Roger Maris in 1961. Maris, less popular than his teammate, Mickey Mantle, and thus deemed less worthy by some, hit his No. 61 in the 162nd game of the season, whereas Ruth hit his 60 homers in a 154-game season, prompting baseball commissioner Ford Frick to suggest a “distinctive mark” in the record book to highlight that difference (which was co-opted to mean an “asterisk,” even though there was never an actual asterisk on the books). In 1998, Mark McGwire (70) and Sammy Sosa (66) each shattered Maris’s record and hold five of the top six totals in history, but their dinger spree took place during the so-called steroid era, and before MLB began testing for PEDs. As did Barry Bonds’s, including his all-time record of 73, in 2001. One more complicating factor: Ruth did his work in a segregated sport; baseball was all-white until Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, and mostly white for many years after that.
Hence: The number of the real single-season home run record (or for that matter, the career record for homers and many other achievements) comes with room for miles of wiggling and volumes of discussion, with little hope for consensus. There are simply too many moving parts, too much change across time, too little commonality that connects performance from different eras (and sometimes, we now understand, an “era” can be as little as a couple decades).
This is the problem – or maybe it’s not a problem; stay with me – with all sports records. A “record,” exists to perform two fundamental tasks: One, to quantify performance. No problem there. Two, to compare one performance to other performances, both in the present and, historically. Problem. And it’s the word historically that’s being asked to do far too much work in this universe. The paradox is this: As fans and other chroniclers of sports, we lust after means to compare excellence (or the lack thereof) among generations, but the evolution of sports (and humans, not always ethically) makes that almost impossible. A record is a record only in the precise instance, and under the precise historical conditions under which it is achieved. Every future record is set in a different world, altered by the games, the players, and the existence of the previous record itself.
Back to my Uncle Johnny. His place in the Hall of Fame has been hotly debated over the years by people who debate such things (and bless them), and fairly so. There’s little doubt he was an excellent player for his time. But the game he played would be scarcely recognizable as baseball to modern fans, beyond the geometry of the playing field itself (and that, not entirely). I wrote this in 2012:
“There are practical differences between major league baseball in the first two decades of the 20th century and the game as it is played today. All of the players were white (Uncle Johnny was born 16 years after the abolition of slavery.) Fielders wore tiny gloves, barely larger than modern ski mittens. The fields were much more uneven than today’s. The period from 1900 (or earlier) to approximately 1919 was called the Dead Ball era for good reason: Baseballs were kept in play, and over the course of games they were beaten to a pulp.”
Whatever my uncle accomplished, he accomplished within the norms of his time, a very different time. He is one small, and to me, very personal example. I would like to see Francisco Lindor field ground balls in the hole with my uncle’s glove, which is very much not Lindor’s problem and not a valid basis for evaluating his work. Keepers of the game over time have developed analytic means to create useful comparison by encasing players within their own era. This is good, but when it comes to records, imperfect. Because records are best when unencumbered by messy complexity. We just want to know: Bonds or Judge?
This is not remotely limited to baseball. Very much the opposite: It’s everywhere in sports.
At the 1964 Summer Olympics, Bob Hayes of the United States won the 100 meters in an official handheld time of 10 seconds flat, extrapolated by statisticians to an electronic time of 10.06 seconds, a world record at the time. Notably, Hayes ran his race in lane one at the Olympic Stadium, assigned by random draw, which is outrageous, but hewed to norms of the time. The track was made from dirt and cinders and Hayes’s lane had been raked just before the final, after it was rutted by competitors in the 20-kilometer walk. Four years later in Mexico City, Jim Hines of the U.S. ran 9.95 on an all-weather track, a record that stood for 28 years.
The 100-meter world record is now held by Usain Bolt, who ran 9.58 seconds at the 2009 World Championships. But the differences between Hayes’s 1964 world record and Bolt’s are myriad and significant: The running surface, the runners’ spikes, training methods, and even their ages. Hayes was 21 years old, concurrently a soon-to-be professional football player who would never run another 100-meter race of significance. Bolt was a 23, a full-time track and field athlete who would become fabulously wealthy over the course of a career that lasted another decade.
(Track and field is nearly as protective of its numbers as baseball: A few years ago I was talking – on background — with an Olympic sprinter about performances and steroids and noted that Ben Johnson had once run 9.79 seconds to win the 1998 Olympic 100 meters, but of course was disqualified when he tested positive for a banned steroid. I suggested that we don’t really know Ben’s personal best. The sprinter said, “Ben’s PR is 9.79. He ran that time.” The subtext is that Johnson may have been running against others with pharmaceutical assistance, much like Lance Armstrong was cycling against opponents are dirty as he was, just not as a good on the drugs. This stuff gets complicated. In sum: If you want to say that Bolt was faster than Hayes because of their difference in their times, that’s fine, and most likely true, but also perilously simplistic. What shoe technology has done to track and marathoning is far more extreme).
Football is less protective of its records than baseball, and more attached to rings and spectacle. But it’s not as if records are cast aside in the NFL. Just last weekend, Aaron Rodgers was celebrated for throwing his 500th career touchdown pass, a category not entirely dissimilar to home runs in baseball. Long balls of a different type. Only five quarterbacks have thrown 500 touchdown passes: Tom Brady (716), Drew Brees (608), Peyton Manning (579), Brett Favre (552), and Rodgers; the longest-retired is Favre, in 2010.
The record had previously been held by Fran Tarkenton (353, retired in 1978), Johnny Unitas (297, retired in 1973) and Y.A. Tittle (246, retired in 1964). But passing records in the NFL have been dramatically neutered by changes in the composition of gameplay. The modern game is significantly tilted to benefit passing offense, with rules implemented over time that empower every entity of the pass game, from quarterbacks (can’t hit them) to receivers (can’t jam them for long) to linemen (they can hold). Twenty-four of the top 25 single-season passing yardage totals have all been achieved since 2007, the only exception being Dan Marino in 1984, a 5,084-yard season that looks more impressive with every flip of the calendar.
But the larger point is that passing records are almost meaningless without significant context. (Rushing records are the opposite, affected by the same shift to passing: Only one active player, Adrian Peterson — technically active, but has not played a down in 2022 — is among the NFL’s top 50 career rushing leaders. Only Peterson, Derrick Henry, and Jonathan Taylor are among the top 25 single-season totals).
Basketball, meanwhile, has undergone steady gameplay progression from lane-widening to shot clocks to the introduction of the three-point line and, foundationally beneath all of that, inexorably improving shooting inefficiency. Yet the hypothetical that seems to arise most often is how records – college or professional — might have been affected if the three-point field goal had been in use during [name the player’s, most often Pete Maravich’s] career. But this is specious, too, because we can’t simply go back, study film, and count imaginary three-pointers, because the presence of the line alters the geometry and strategy of the game. A modern game, dictated by half-court spacing, ball movement and matchups, is wildly different from previous iterations of the sport.
Examples of misleading records are everywhere. Here is a small example from the skiing world: For many years, Austrian skier Annemarie Moser-Proell was the winningest woman in World Cup history, having won 62 races from 1969-’80. She was eventually passed by Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. who finished her career in 2019 with 82 victories. But Vonn’s total included 28 wins in the Super-G, a downhill-giant slalom that didn’t become part of the World Cup until 1983. Moser-Proell would have raced and won a lot of Super-Gs; in her 12-year career, the women’s World Cup averaged 24 races per year, whereas in Vonn’s it averaged 36, although Vonn was frequently injured and missed part of many seasons. None of this diminishes Vonn’s record, it just complicates it ever so slightly. (And Vonn’s record may be broken soon by Mikaela Shiffrin, who has 74 wins and nary an asterisk).
There is another way to consume these record-breaking realities: Records are not just an imprimatur that describes and elevates the record-breaker; they are also a patch of intellectual real estate on which sports’ history is preserved. If Aaron Judge’s record resurfaces Babe Ruth’s segregated past and the complexity of the steroid era, those are good things. If sprinting records preserve Bob Hayes’ memory in some way, that is worthwhile.
Records are incomplete, but not unimportant. They keep the time machine humming.