Even though the words have been changed a little, you probably know this one: “Where have you gone, Paul Molitor . . . ?”
Back to the dugout. Too bad you didn’t pass Joe DiMaggio. You could have been famous. Maybe they would have named a drink after you. The Molitor cocktail, probably.
All during the Molitor monitor, while he was following the 46-year-old trail of grounds left by the Yankee Clipper, the former Mr. Coffee, we were all reminded of something: The records of baseball can be played at any speed.
On some of these records, you already know the words by heart. To understand all this, think of it as a game of word association.
Fifty-six game hitting streak.
Roger Maris .
Sixty-one home runs.
Perfect game in the World Series.
You can go on and on and on, but there’s no need to sound like a broken record. Actually, that is just what baseball’s records are good for, anyway. To be broken. This is sometimes confusing because there are so many of them out there just begging to be shattered.
For instance, did you know that Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Juan Samuel is taking aim at one of baseball’s many obscure records, currently held by Leon Allen (Goose) Goslin, who spent most of his career with the Washington Senators.
Goslin finished five seasons with double figures in doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases. Samuel has done that four times, including this season, and if he makes it again in his career, Goose’s record, as a solo, is cooked.
Actually, Samuel already holds what could be considered a major subdivision of that record. He has done his double-figure work in his first four seasons in the majors. The Goose didn’t do that.
Don’t you just love baseball? It’s just that there are so darned many records that ranking the most important or the most difficult ones to break is really kind of hard. How hard is it? About as hard as, well, knocking in 190 runs in a season, as Hack Wilson did for the Cubs in 1930.
Pete Rose, who knows a few things about records, said there are only two unbreakables, and DiMaggio’s streak isn’t one of them. Untouchable, in his estimation, are Cy Young’s 511 victories and Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive games played.
Baseball seems to be at least slightly batty about this degree-of-difficulty thing, but then a lot of sports are. Take golf, for instance. Somebody once asked Groucho Marx, an avid golfer, what he considered the most difficult shot in golf.
“I find it to be the hole-in-one,” Groucho said.
The most difficult record in baseball? There may not be any one record.
Seymour Siwoff got into the record business 35 years ago when he founded the Elias Sports Bureau, which is considered the foremost compiler of baseball statistics. He said the whole issue is a matter of semantics.
“I don’t know how to put a priority on hard records,” Siwoff said. “I can’t say what the most difficult is. Everything is difficult. We’re talking about a skill. Ranking them in importance is what you have to say, not how difficult.
“So what are the most recognized records. That would be the home runs for a season. What’s the most dramatic? Any kind of streak has drama to it.
“So the real issue with records is not which are the most difficult, but which are the ones that give the most recognition, the ones that are the most exciting, the ones which have the greatest continuity. The other day they played a game and there were no chances in the outfield. Well, so what?
“The most difficult record hasn’t even been done yet. I don’t even know what it is. But somebody may do something phenomenal, which is why sports has this enormous romance to it. The reason is because sports is drama, high drama. You go to the theater and you know how the ending is because somebody already wrote it, right? But sports is the ultimate theater. You know the ending only when the game ends. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes an unusual thing happens.”
And when unusual things happen in succession, records are often made. Books are then printed to list the records. One of them is the Bill James Baseball Abstract, which was conceived in a garage in Lawrence, Kan., in 1977. Today, James’ book has grown to be generally acknowledged as a primary source of statistical analysis, along with the Elias Baseball Analyst.
As is usually the case in the record business, James has had a lifelong love affair with baseball statistics.
“I don’t pay attention to crime rate statistics, weather statistics, stock market statistics or the ebb and flow of literacy among football fans,” James said. “Just baseball.”
Unlike Siwoff, however, James has definite ideas on baseball’s toughest records. The commonly acknowledged ones are DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs and Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive games played. Recognized as an extremely difficult feat, although it would not necessarily be a record, would be somebody batting .400 or better for the first time since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
James, though, has his own list, in no particular order:
--Most triples in a season: 36 by J. Owen (Chief) Wilson of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1912. “That’s just impossible,” James said.
--Lifetime batting average: .367 by Ty Cobb. “Unbreakable.”
--Victories by a pitcher: 511 by Young. “Completely out of the realm of possibility.”
--Strikeouts by a pitcher in a season: 383 by Nolan Ryan for the Angels in 1973. “Pitchers don’t pitch over 300 innings any more like Ryan did.”
--RBIs in a season: 190 by Hack Wilson in 1930. “Much, much more difficult than the 61-homer standard.”
--Slugging percentage: .847 in 1920 by Babe Ruth and .690 in a career, also by Ruth. “More difficult than Cobb’s career batting average.”
Ruth’s slugging records, as impressive as they may be to statistical nuts, are not exactly what fans discuss over Dodger Dogs. Slugging percentage is a little too vague to really sink your teeth into.
Slugging percentage is determined by dividing total bases by at-bats. It’s not nearly as attention-grabbing as some kind of streak.
Siwoff believes that many records are as much a matter of longevity as skill.
“The toughest records are those that run out of time,” he said. “What I mean is, if it’s a career (record) and you stay healthy, you should eventually reach that mark. So it’s got to be something with a time frame. After so many opportunities, your at-bats would run out.
“Obviously, DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is an example of consistency and the length of it is so phenomenal that it would have to be an extremely tough thing to try to exceed,” he said.
“On the other hand, a guy like Dale Long hit homers in eight straight games. And, of course, Don Mattingly tied it, and that has to rank right up there among those records because you have to do one every day, just like you’ve got to get a base hit.
“Now, which is harder? To get a base hit or get a homer? So that’s the type of record I’m talking about.
“Career records can be put in another category. Pete Rose breaking the Cobb record for hits. What I’m saying there is that it was only a matter of time before he did it. “
So what record is the record that Siwoff would most like to see broken?
“A guy hit five homers in a game,” he said. “Five would be devastating. Awesome would be a better word.”
James doesn’t even think it’s out of the question, however, that somebody will break DiMaggio’s 56-game streak or that a batter will hit .400, possibly sometime soon.
“There’s no question in my mind,” he said. “As far as .400, there’s a 1-in-10 chance for next year. It’s not that strange. Batting averages have gone up. And 30 wins could happen, although it obviously won’t be easy and the odds are longer than the 61-homer record. Somebody could break that record. There’s much better than a 1% chance that it’ll happen next year. That’s all you need. One percent keeps the chances alive.”
Anything could happen. That doesn’t mean anything will, though. But if it does, if there is a string of unusual things and a record is broken, a lot more people are probably going to notice than when the previous record was set. Siwoff said that the media has generated much more interest in records than ever before.
“Williams hit .406 46 years ago,” he said. “If somebody was going for .400 today, can you imagine? What would it be today if Rogers Hornsby hit .424?
“Today in this age of information, it suddenly takes on a dimension which is very romantic, but unfortunately the guys who were setting those standards never had that same wonderful advantage. But they also never had the same kind of pressure, either. Babe Ruth didn’t have any ghosts to chase. Roger Maris did and so did Aaron.
“And when DiMaggio was setting the streak, when he broke George Sisler’s record of 41 straight games, then he got by Willie Keeler’s 44 games in 1897, he was on his own,” Siwoff said. “He was just challenging himself.”
Now they’re challenging him, just as players like Molitor have been doing since 1941. That’s the record business. As we’re continually reminded, it’s a tough business to break into.