Yea, from the table of my memory I'll wipe away all trivial fond records....
Hamlet, ACT 1, SCENE 5
Lately it seems that all sports records—trivial, fond and otherwise—are being wiped away, doesn't it? Before the Dodgers' Orel Hershiser pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988, Don Drysdale's 30-year-old streak of 58 was considered untouchable. Another distinguished mark, Lee Evans's 400-meter time of 43.86 in the 1968 Olympics, fell on Aug. 17, 1988, when Butch Reynolds ran a 43.29 in Zurich. And in the same city one year later, Roger Kingdom ran the 110-meter hurdles in 12.92, trimming .01 of a second off the seemingly unbeatable standard set by Renaldo Nehemiah in 1981. These days the ink barely dries on new weightlifting records before they must be changed, and swimming marks are erased every time some teenager with earplugs swallows a mouthful of chlorinated water.
Athletes are competing longer now, too, and so a Payton outrushes a Brown and an Abdul-Jabbar out-scores a Chamberlain. No one will ever eclipse Wayne Gretzky's 215-point season of 1985-86, we once said confidently. Well, Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, who had 199 points last season, just might do it—and so might Gretzky himself.
Quick: Name three records in any sport that will never be broken. Chances are you said:
•Bob Beamon's long jump of 29'2½" in the '68 Olympics.
•Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game on March 2, 1962, against the New York Knicks in Hershey, Pa.
•Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak of 56 consecutive games in 1941.
For a variety of reasons, these three marks stand out. Beamon's jump, which broke the existing world record by almost two feet, is still an astonishing thing to watch on film. First the leap and then the incredulous Beamon holding his face in his hands, trying to comprehend. What have I done? Chamberlain's 100-point game is statistically even more impressive (as we shall see), but the extraordinary was expected from Wilt, who by 1962, his third year in the NBA, was already surpassing his own standards. What makes Chamberlain's mark so imposing is the majesty of the number itself. One hundred points. Easy to remember; impossible to duplicate. It is DiMaggio's mark, however, that sits alone on top of the record realm's Mount Olympus Babe Ruth's 60-home-run season held that distinction until Roger Maris asterisked it out of the record book in 1961), a monument to consistency that has withstood the tests of time, Pete Rose, Paul Molitor et al.
For sure, 29'2½", 100 and 56 are big numbers in the record business. So why have they stood up while hundreds of other records have fallen? Are they truly unassailable? Are there other, even more impregnable, albeit less well known, records out there? And even if a record is invulnerable, is it worthy of the recognition? What constitutes a great record? Would only a crazy person try to answer such questions?