The answer to that last one is a resounding yes. People who spend their lives working with statistics, like the numbers-crunchers at the Elias Sports Bureau in New York City, won't list records they consider unsurpassable. They're too smart for that.
"Records are broken when circumstances are right," says Peter Hirdt, an executive vice-president at Elias, "and circumstances get complicated." Pressed to name a record that he can say with 100% certainty will never be broken, Hirdt sighs the sigh of a man humoring an imbecile and says, "O.K., here it is: Complete games in a season. In 1879, Cincinnati pitcher William White completed 74 games. Of course, he also started 74 games. Call me crazy, but I don't think any pitcher will ever do that again."
Hirdt isn't crazy, of course. Last year's complete-game leader, Bret Saberhagen, finished only 12. Hirdt's point is that baseball, like most sports, has changed so much over the years that comparisons of records are not only odious but unreliable. Pitching poses particular problems because it is only in the last 40 years or so that relief pitchers have been widely used. The huge number of innings logged by the old-timers allowed them to set marks that can never be beaten. Big Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox pitched 464 innings in 1908—obviously an unbreachable standard—yet I find the 376 innings pitched by Detroit's Mickey Lolich in 1971 just as impressive, considering he was a hard-throwing pitcher in a bullpen age. And so, as you will see, I have only one old-time chucker among my record holders.
Hitting, too, is the subject of endless and ultimately irreconcilable cross-era arguments. Who achieved more in 24 years of batting: Ty Cobb, who collected 4,191 hits while whaling away (for the first 15 years of his career, anyway) at a dead ball, or Rose, who got the record 4,256 hits while facing specialist relief pitchers under the nasty glare of artificial light?
Even more problematic than baseball is boxing, which has changed so much since its bare-knuckle days—when fighters routinely went at each other for 60 rounds or more—that records are all but meaningless. Today's fighters simply don't have the chance—fortunately for them—to eclipse some of the old records. Sugar Ray Robinson, after all, fought more times (45) after the age of 40 than his namesake Sugar Ray Leonard has fought in his entire career. Even if there were a contemporary boxer with the talent to hold three world titles simultaneously, as did the great Henry Armstrong (featherweight, welterweight and lightweight) back in 1938, today's rules would not allow it. (Even in Armstrong's day the rules were restrictive; Armstrong had to give up his featherweight crown shortly after winning the lightweight.) And so there are no boxing records on this list.
There are other sticky issues to deal with. For instance, what is a record? Is there a record, say, for setting records? If so, the legendary Soviet weightlifter Vasily Alexeyev must own it, for he broke 82 world marks. Yet every one of his records has fallen. Then, too, some great achievements in sport are simply not records at all, such as John McEnroe's demolition of Jimmy Connors in the 1984 Wimbledon final: It took McEnroe just 80 minutes and he lost only four games. Still, many other matches have been as short and just as decisive.
And then there is the specter of dubious record keeping. In 1934, halfback Beattie Feathers averaged 9.94 yards per carry for the Chicago Bears. Obviously no one will ever touch that mark—unless expansion franchises on the moon spawn featherweight running backs. But there are many researchers who simply don't believe Feathers's number and who theorize that kickoff and/or punt returns were included. Sorry, Beattie, I don't believe it, either, and I didn't include it.
What about Ben Johnson? His time of 9.79 seconds in the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul has been wiped off the official record books because Johnson used steroids before the race. His 9.83 at the 1987 World Championships will probably be disallowed as well. Thus neither mark is included here.
Most troublesome is the question of which sports to consider. Should one include Walter Prow's time of 16.81 seconds in the 100-meter snowshoe sprint, which broke a 17-second mark that had stood for years? How about the rope-jumping records of Katsumi Suzuki, who on May 29, 1975, established two standards (381 treble turns, 51 quadruple turns) that might never be surpassed? (A third Suzuki mark—10,133 double turns—has stood since September 1979.)
Let's leave it at this: I'll concern myself only with marks that are generally considered athletic records—my name isn't Guinness—and only in the so-called major sports. A few team records will be included, although the emphasis will be on individual accomplishment; teams change, even if their names remain the same. No major league baseball franchise, for example, will win as many championships (22) as the New York Yankees, but the Yanks won them over 55 years, from 1923 to 1978.