The assignment — rank the top 10 sports records that will never be broken — seemed straightforward enough until you dig into the research and realize you could easily fill the list with records from Major League Baseball alone.
To diversify the field, filters were added to eliminate marks set long ago in sports that have undergone such drastic change that those records will never be approached, let alone broken.
For instance, who could touch Cy Young’s 511 career wins and 749 complete games from 1890 to 1911, and Old Hoss Radbourn’s 59 wins in 1894?
Those were set when teams used three- and four-man rotations and rarely went to the bullpen; today’s pitchers make 36 starts or so in injury-free seasons and are backed by a small army of relief specialists.
We also limited the field to records set from 1940 on. That eliminates Georgia Tech’s 222-0 victory over Cumberland University — or was that Cumberland Farms? — in 1916, the most lopsided college football game ever. Would any coach risk losing his job by running up the score on a hapless opponent like that today?
Candidates were chosen from professional sports, the Olympics and major college sports, eliminating obscure marks such as Division III Linfield College’s NCAA football record of 58 consecutive winning seasons and the myriad high school records set across the nation.
With that in mind, the envelope please:
Iron Man II
On May 29, 1982, Cal Ripken, then a 21-year-old Baltimore shortstop, sat out the second game of a doubleheader against Toronto. He would not miss another game until Sept. 20, 1998, when he voluntarily sat out the final home game of the season against the New York Yankees.
Ripken’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games played spanned more than 16 years and included that historic night of Sept. 6, 1995, when, with the Angels, President Clinton and Joe DiMaggio on hand, Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 straight games and took a 22-minute victory lap around Camden Yards.
Injuries, illness and the desire of managers to pace players with days off through 162-game seasons prevent most streaks from gaining much steam.
The longest active streak of 505 games — 2,127 short of Ripken — is held by new Texas first baseman Prince Fielder. To break Ripken’s record, all Fielder, 29, has to do is play in every game … for 13 more years.
Lew Alcindor passed the torch to Sidney Wicks, who passed it to Bill Walton. Those three stars and legendary Coach John Wooden were the keys to UCLA’s incredible run to a record seven straight national championships and 38 consecutive NCAA tournament victories from 1967 to 1973.
No other Division I college basketball program — not Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina or Michigan State — has won more than two straight national titles. With today’s stars bolting for the NBA after one or two years in college, forcing coaches to reshuffle rosters every year or two, it’s impossible to build a UCLA-like dynasty.
Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wicks and Walton remained at UCLA through their senior seasons. UCLA also needed four victories to win most of those titles. Today’s teams must navigate a more grueling 64-team field and win six games for a championship.
Luck of the Irish
After securing the second pick of the 1956 NBA draft in a trade, Boston Celtics Coach Red Auerbach persuaded the Rochester Royals, in a negotiation that included a promise that the Celtics would send the highly popular Ice Capades to Rochester, to bypass a certain 6-foot-9 All-American center with the first pick.
Rochester took Duquesne swingman Sihugo Green, and the cigar-chomping Auerbach nabbed Bill Russell, the centerpiece of a Celtics team that won a record eight straight NBA titles from 1959 to 1966, five of them against the Lakers, starting a bitter rivalry that has spanned decades.
The NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement makes it much more difficult to keep great teams together today. First-round picks who become impact NBA players can become free agents after only four years, and teams can sign their own free agents for a maximum of five years.
And penalties for teams passing the $71.7-million luxury-tax threshold are severe. A club with a $100-million payroll would owe an additional $78 million in taxes.
The Great One
Wayne Gretzky was not the biggest, strongest or fastest skater in NHL history, but his combination of skill, instincts, intelligence and ability to read the game was unrivaled. In 21 seasons, the Brantford, Canada, native amassed a record 2,857 points, almost 1,000 more than second-ranked Mark Messier (1,887).
Gretzky, who led the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cup championships from 1984 to 1990, holds nine of the top 11 single-season points records, including four of 205 or more. In fact, he has more assists (1,963) than any other player has points.
The two active players closest to Gretzky are 43-year-old New Jersey Devils right winger Jaromir Jagr, who has 1,706 points, and 41-year-old Ducks right winger Teemu Selanne, who has 1,437 points and is retiring after this season.
Nolan Ryan’s consistent delivery from a strong, wiry and freakishly injury-resistant 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame produced high-octane velocity that the right-hander carried well into his 40s.
Ryan amassed a record 5,714 strikeouts in 27 years (1966-93). Only one pitcher — Randy Johnson (4,875) — is within 1,000 strikeouts. Roger Clemens (4,672) and Steve Carlton (4,136) rank third and fourth, respectively.
To break Ryan’s record, a pitcher would have to average 228 strikeouts over 25 seasons or 286 strikeouts over 20 seasons, virtually impossible in an age when pitchers start on four days’ rest, pitch counts are so closely monitored and starters rarely pitch beyond the seventh inning.
Ryan, who whiffed a modern-day record of 383 batters in 1973, holds another unbreakable record with 2,795 walks, 962 more than Carlton (1,833).
San Francisco treat
Mississippi-raised Jerry Rice, the son of a brick mason, says he developed his strong hands working for his father, often catching bricks that were tossed two stories up by his brother.
Rice would use those hands — and his speed, instincts and route-running ability — to become the greatest receiver in NFL history, accumulating a record 22,895 receiving yards and 197 touchdowns from 1985 to 2004 and helping the San Francisco 49ers win three Super Bowls.
It didn’t hurt that Rice, who is 6,961 yards ahead of second-place Terrell Owens (15,934 yards) on the NFL’s all-time list, had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks — Joe Montana and Steve Young — throwing to him for 16 seasons.
But Rice was also huge in big games. He was the most valuable player in a victory over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII.
The Big Dipper
A last-place New York Knicks team was no match for Wilt Chamberlain on March 2, 1962, the hulking 7-foot-1, 275-pound Philadelphia Warriors center scoring an NBA record 100 points in a game played in Hershey, Pa.
Chamberlain, despite being triple-teamed in the second half, made 36 of 63 shots from the field and 28 of 32 from the line, remarkable for a player who struggled so much he shot his free throws underhanded.
Darrell Imhoff, the Knicks’ 6-9, 220-pound center, got into foul trouble, and 6-9 backup Cleveland Buckner was overwhelmed. Chamberlain’s by-quarter points: 23, 18, 28, 31. “He literally stuffed us through the hoop with the ball,” Imhoff said.
The closest anyone has come to the record is Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who, after scoring 81 points against Toronto in 2006, said of Wilt’s mark, “It’s unthinkable … it’s pretty exhausting to think about it.”
Long live the king
Driving his famous No. 43 stock car for 34 years from 1958 to 1992, North Carolina native Richard Petty racked up 200 NASCAR wins, including the prestigious Daytona 500 a record seven times. Petty, who survived harrowing crashes in 1970, 1980 and 1988, also won a record 27 races in 1967 alone.
The driver who is second to Petty on NASCAR’s all-time list, David Pearson, retired with 105 wins. Active racer Jeff Gordon ranks third with 86 wins. Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, both retired, are tied for fourth with 84 wins.
Why is Petty’s record virtually untouchable? Because the sport today is so much more competitive than it was in Petty’s era; there are more good drivers and good cars that have been aided by huge advances in technology throughout the field in any given race.
John Isner and Nicolas Mahut made history by playing an 11-hour, 5-minute, 183-game match over three days at Wimbledon in 2010. That was a full 4 1/2 hours longer than the previous record match of 6 hours, 33 minutes by Fabrice Santoro and Arnaud Clement at the 2004 French Open.
Two days after their match started, Isner, of North Carolina, defeated Mahut, of France, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68. The previous mark for games played was 112 between Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell in 1969 at Wimbledon. Isner and Mahut shattered that by playing 138 games — in the fifth set.
Isner said of his vanquished opponent, “The guy’s an absolute warrior. It stinks someone had to lose. To share this with him was an honor. Maybe we’ll meet again down the road, and it won’t be 70-68.” They met again in the first round at Wimbledon in 2011, Isner winning in straight sets in a mere 2 hours, 2 minutes.
Home run king*
It’s difficult to rank the records of Barry Bonds, who hit 73 homers for the San Francisco Giants in 2001 and 762 homers in his 22-year career, passing Mark McGwire’s single-season mark and Hank Aaron’s career mark.
The slugger was a central figure in baseball’s steroids scandal, being indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2007 for allegedly lying to a grand jury by testifying that he never knowingly took any illegal steroids.
Baseball’s crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs and renewed emphasis on pitching and defense will make both records difficult to eclipse, but who knows?
MLB may have to cope with an undetectable chemical era in the future, or some Ruthian-like slugger could emerge from nowhere — like Baltimore’s Chris Davis, who hit 53 homers in 2013 — and top the single-season mark.
Barely missed the cut
Pete Rose’s 4,256 career hits … Lance Armstrong’s seven straight Tour de France wins (1999-2005) … Chicago Bulls’ 72-win season (1995-96) … Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak (1941) … Glenn Hall’s 502 consecutive starts in goal for the Chicago Blackhawks … … Wilt Chamberlain’s 55-rebound game against Boston (1960) … Rickey Henderson’s 1,406 career stolen bases … Byron Nelson’s 11 straight PGA tournament wins (1945) … Lakers’ 33 straight wins (1971-72) … Brett Favre’s 297 straight NFL starts at quarterback.