Subjective judgments will—repeat, will—be made. They must. Two professors, Dr. Bruce Golden of the University of Maryland and Dr. Edward Wasil of American University, who used a computer to study the overall topic of sports records, admitted that their own "subjective preferences" crept into the study, which was published in the September-October 1987 issue of the academic journal Interfaces. I referred to the study for this less learned discussion (and found it quite helpful) but was not wedded to its results.
Records must be divided into three categories: single-event (Beamon's jump), single-season (DiMaggio's hitting streak) and career (Rose's hitting record). Of the three, single-season records are in many ways the most "legitimate," because they measure accomplishment over a set period of time that is neither too long nor too short. Single-event records are often showy, flash-in-the-pan feats and, as such, are hard to evaluate. In my opinion, only the first two of the single-event records listed below (Chamberlain's 100 points and Secretariat's time of 2:24 in the 1973 Belmont Stakes) are truly unassailable. Career records invariably involve the kinds of complicated circumstances that make Hirdt hurt (number of games played, quality of teams played for, injuries, etc.) and have a major effect on the numbers. Who knows, for example, how many records Ted Williams would have set if he had not missed nearly five seasons while flying combat aircraft during World War II and the Korean War? Or, for that matter, if he hadn't been so stubborn that he tried to punch line drives through six fielders deployed against him in the Williams Shift, instead of simply lollipopping hits to leftfield?
So, here are my ratings. Keep in mind that I want records not only to be difficult to duplicate but also to mean something. The major league mark for triples in a single season—36, set by Owen (Chief) Wilson of the Pirates in 1912—is unquestionably unassailable. Yet it is, according to baseball researcher Tom Hansen, "the quirkiest record I've seen, since Wilson's next best is 14," and it's not worthy of inclusion. Probably no college football team will ever again win a game by a score of 222-0, as Georgia Tech did over Cumberland in 1916, but so what? The margin of victory is as insignificant as it is unbeatable. Thus the marks below are ordered according to worthiness as well as unassailability.
1) Chamberlain's 100-point game. Actually, Bevo Francis of Rio Grande scored 113 points in a college basketball game against Hillsdale in 1954, and several high school players have scored more than 100 points in a game, led by Danny Heater of Burnsville (W.Va.) High School, who scored 135 points against Widen High in 1960. But let's agree that Chamberlain's mark is the most noteworthy because it came at the highest level of competition. (O.K., O.K., so the Knicks finished last in the Eastern Division that season, with a 29-51 record; they were still in the NBA.)
"It can't happen again," says Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan, the game's only 100-point candidate right now. "Today's defenses are too complicated," he says. "A team simply wouldn't let you score that many. Not even close to it."
In Jordan's reasoning there is at least an implied criticism of Chamberlain's 100-point game: Back then defenses were not as complex or as likely to double-and triple-team a player as they are today. And, yes, Chamberlain was bigger, stronger and more mobile than any other player on the court; he might be today, too, but not by as much. And Chamberlain did attempt 63 field goals, the highest one-game total ever.
But all of those factors should not diminish the achievement. Chamberlain, after all, raised the single-game scoring record by 22 points—a 28% improvement—and it was his own record he broke (he had scored 78 against the Lakers in Philadelphia on Dec. 8 of that season). The percentage goes up to 37 when Chamberlain's 100 points are compared with the best single-game scoring performance by another player: David Thompson's 73 points against the Pistons on April 9, 1978. And, lest we forget, on that special March evening nearly 28 years ago, one of the worst foul shooters in NBA history made 28 of 32 from the line.
2) Secretariat's time of 2:24, with Ron Turcotte up, in the '73 Belmont Stakes. "Horses don't set records, tracks' do," goes the adage. Indeed, on that lovely afternoon in June the 1½-mile Belmont Park track was exceptionally fast. Still, no other horse has come within 2[2/5] seconds of that unbelievable time, and there have been other fast fields in other fast Belmonts. The victory gave Secretariat the Triple Crown, and his margin of victory—31 lengths over runner-up Twice A Prince and 45¼ lengths over last-place Sham, who had run second to Secretariat in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness—was unprecedented in a major race.
Many racing records are held by ordinary horses who had extraordinary days on extraordinarily fast tracks. The fact that an extraordinary horse turned in this record makes it all the more meaningful.