Baseball is a sport which is rich in history and with that illustrious history come many records.
Any player who reaches the majors and pulls on a pitcher’s glove or picks up a bat will dream of setting a record and forever placing their name in history.
But for some players, they can rest easy in the knowledge that no matter what those who come along do, they will never be able to take their record away.
Nolan Ryan – 5,714 career strikeouts
K is for strikeout and K is for keep because after the legendary Texan set this record over his spectacular 27-year career, that’s exactly what he is going to do with it.
The former Houston Astro is the holder of many accolades, accumulating more playing time than anyone else and throwing more no-hitters (seven!) as well as some negative records, having walked more hitters and thrown more wild pitches than anyone else in baseball.
But nobody comes close to Ryan when it comes to striking out opponents, whether it was swinging or looking – he sat opponents on 5,714 occasions throughout his career.
That is 839 Ks more than the next closest man on the list, Randy Johnson, and to even come close to this record, a pitcher would have to clock in the kind of longevity that ‘The Ryan Express’ managed and that’s just for starters.
There is only one other active pitcher in the top 20, with New York Yankees veteran CC Sabathia coming in at 17th on the list, albeit almost 3,000 strikeouts behind the man at the top.
For a player to knock Ryan from top spot, he would have to average 286 strikeouts per year over a 20-season career and if we are kinder and offer a pitcher a 25-year window, he would still have to rack up an unlikely average 229 Ks each year.
To give an idea of the degree of difficulty, since the year 2000, the 280 strikeout mark for a single season has only been broken on 10 occasions.
Pete Rose – 4,256 career hits
Whatever else you want to say about Rose and his activities away from the field, when he was at the plate, he was a relentless force of nature.
In the history of baseball, only two men in major league history have ever broken the 4,000 hit barrier: Ty Cobb and Rose, with the latter comfortably out in front on 4,256.
Line drives, grounders, pop flies, bunts, infield sprints, towering blasts. It didn’t matter to Rose and come hell or high water, the only thing that seemed to matter to him was reaching base.
He has managed to hit his way on more than any other player in the history of the game and even if he never finds his way into Cooperstown (a whole other argument), the ‘Hit King’ will never relinquish his crown in that regard.
Once more applying the 20-year career mark for a player who had designs on usurping the Cincinnati Reds legend and reach say 4,260, he would have to rack up 213 hits per season.
Looking at currently active players (we will leave out Ichiro Suzuki after his transition to a front office role despite not officially announcing retirement), the closest man to Rose is Adrian Beltre in 23rd position on 3,080 hits.
The Texas Ranger made his MLB debut in 1998 at the age of 19, ideal for an exceptional hitter perfectly suited to chasing such a record, but he is still 1,176 hits short.
Even he would have to hit an average of 168 per season for the next seven years in order to overcome Rose!
Ty Cobb – .367 career batting average
While it was tempting to opt for the OBP stat here and Ted Williams’ career on base percentage of .482, which seems equally unbreakable, Cobb’s gets the nod.
His career lasted from 1905 until 1928 and during that time, he was the most feared hitter in the game due to his relentless competitiveness.
Let’s look at his career statistics to get an idea of how difficult it would be for anyone to reach those heights again.
Only once in his 24 years in MLB did his season average dip below .300 (when he registered .240 in his debut campaign which was limited to 41 games) and his second lowest was an outstanding .320 in 1906.
He amassed 4,191 hits and held the record until Rose, cracked .400 for a season on three separate occasions and was an 11-time batting champion, while also finishing second three times.
Of men currently playing, the closest to Cobb in the standings is a fellow Detroit Tiger in Miguel Cabrera, who is 35 and on .317, putting him at 46th on the all-time list.
If Williams, who many claim was the most naturally gifted and talented hitter of all time and finished up with .344, can’t beat Cobb, what chance does anyone else have?
Cy Young – 511 wins
Over a 21-year spell, the iconic pitcher, who gave his name to the award for the best in the game in the position such was his influence, was a daunting prospect for any hitter.
Across five separate teams, he registered an outstanding career which saw him wind up with 2,803 strikeouts, a 2.63 ERA and a jaw-dropping 511 wins.
Walter Johnson, a fellow dead-ball era pitcher, comes in second with 417 victories and since the live-ball era began, the leading starter in terms of victories is Warren Spahn, but even he is 147 wins behind.
That is evidence of the magnitude of this particular task. Of current players, only veterans Bartolo Colon and CC Sabathia make the top 100 of career wins and both those men are over 250 behind, despite enjoying lengthy and reasonably successful periods in the big time.
To even get near Young a pitcher would have to pick up 25 decision wins per season in 20 straight seasons and even then, that would only see him hit 500 and not break the record!
Incidentally, this isn’t the only record which Young holds that will remain untouchable forever, with his 749 complete games a feat that few are ever likely to even come close to in the bullpen age.
Joe DiMaggio – 56-game hit streak
The absurdity of it. When someone today can amass a hitting streak which reaches double figures it leaves me impressed so 56 for Joltin’ Joe is simply stunning.
In 1941, with World War II raging and many needing a lift, a New York Yankee by the name of Joe DiMaggio provided that by hitting his way onto base for 56 games in succession.
During the run, DiMaggio averaged .408, amassed 91 hits, 16 doubles, four triples, 55 RBI and 24 walks. Oh, and he struck our just three times over the course of those games.
Since DiMaggio, the closest anyone has came to him is Rose, who hit safely for 44 straight games in 1978, tying him for second on the all-time list with ‘Wee’ Willie Keeler in 1897.
Never mind DiMaggio, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will even approach Rose or Keeler given the treatment these days of dangerous hitters, where managers will opt to walk them without a second thought for fear of dealing with the player.
In addition, managers also playing specific match-ups with the use of their bullpens (something DiMaggio didn’t have to deal with to even close to the same extent) means the deck is just stacked massively against the hitter.
Since the ‘Yankee Clipper’ saw his streak ended, only 13 players have hit safely in over 30 games, with only Rose breaking the 40-barrier and nobody coming close to the half-century.
‘Old Hoss’ Radbourn – 59 wins in a single season
The record for most wins in a season from Charles ‘Old Hoss’ Radbourn was set 134 years ago and still hasn’t been broken.
In fact, the longer time has gone on, the less likely it is to be surpassed, and in the modern era, it has become impossible because pitchers no longer even start enough games to beat it, let alone win them all.
A pitcher today will likely be part of a five-man rotation and therefore start perhaps 33 games a year if he stays completely healthy and avoids any kind of troublesome injury.
Radbourn is in fact credited in various sources with different amounts of wins for that record-setting ’84 season, with MacMillan’s Baseball Encyclopaedia and his Cooperstown biography crediting him with 60, while his tombstone cites 62 as being the number.
In any event, his official MLB record is listed at 59 (with one save) and a look at pitcher win totals for a single season in the years since are evidence of how unbreakable this record really is.
Since baseball’s live-ball era began, only Jim Bagby (1920), Lefty Grove (1931) Dizzy Dean (1934) and Denny McLain (1968) have reached 30 wins or more for a single year and would have to have doubled their respective tallies to break this record.
Perhaps this record could be broken if a relief pitcher appeared in the required amount of games and managed to luck out to be handed the decision 60 times… but there is likely more chance of the previous five records listed all being broken than that happening!
Hack Wilson – 191 RBI in one season
Nobody in Major League Baseball history has swatted in more runs in a single campaign than Chicago Cubs outfielder ‘Hack’ Wilson, who drove in 191 of them in the 1930 season.
It is uncertain how Wilson, real name Lewis Robert, earned the nickname ‘Hack’ with theories ranging from his resemblance to a wrestler of the time known as George Hackenschmidt to the likeness he bore to taxis of the time.
Nonetheless, he was a fearsome hitter and there were signs the previous season of what he was capable of when he led the league with 159 RBI and batted .345 as the Northsiders won their first pennant in over a decade.
Given the incredible spike in hitting from not just Wilson but the entirety of baseball the next year, there are rumours which may have some basis that the ball was altered that year, which would make this record even harder to break if it was achieved under more helpful circumstances.
Whether it is true or not, what is indisputable is that Wilson played in 155 games and ruthlessly plundered 208 hits in his record-setting season, 56 of them being home runs (an NL record which stood until 1998) and averaging .356, with a .723 slugging percentage and OPS of 1.177.
In the penultimate month of the season alone, he slugged 13 homers and drove in 53 of his 191 runs and although that record was briefly threatened by Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg in the ’30s, nobody has came close since.
For what it is worth, noted baseball analyst Bill James believes the record has essentially taken on an unbreakable nature in the current era because offensive threat has spread throughout line-ups and there are less RBI opportunities for hitters as time passes.
Johnny Vander Meer – Back-to-back no-hitters
It is hard enough in baseball to throw one no-hitter, an achievement that has only been accomplished on 299 occasions of Major League Baseball.
Of that number, 34 players have managed to throw more than one, while only five players have tossed multiple no-no games in a single season.
But just one man has did it in back to back starts and that man is Johnny Vander Meer, who kept the Boston Braves hitless on June 11, 1938 and then four days later in the first ever night game at Ebbets Field, he did the same against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
His 14-year career saw him win All-Star honours on four occasions, win a World Series in 1940 and was the National League strikeout leader three times but it was that feat in a short span in the summer of ’38 that is his crowning moment.
Nobody has even matched Vander Meer, despite some valiant efforts from the likes of Max Scherzer who threw a no-hitter and one-hitter in back to back games, and Ewell Blackwell, who followed up a no-hitter with eight innings of hitless ball.
Remember to beat it, a pitcher would have to hurl 27 successive innings without giving up a hit.
Cal Ripken Jr – 2,632 successive game streak
From 1982 until 1998, Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr set the record for consecutive games played when he played 2,632 in a row without losing his place in the line-up.
To not miss a single game over such a lengthy span which spanned five Olympic Games, three US presidential tenures, the introduction of four new MLB franchises and even six Bruce Springsteen albums is a feat of incredible determination, spirit, quality and a little bit of luck too.
Only seven men in baseball history have amassed a streak of over 1,000 games and just two men have beaten the 2,000 mark, with Lou Gehrig in second on 2,130.
Broken noses, twisted knees and a variety of ankle injuries failed to sideline him as he earned the reputation for being the ‘ironman of baseball’.
If a player has designs on breaking this, then be warned. You would have to play 16 straight seasons without missing a single game and then make it to 41 games in the 17th.
Rickey Henderson – 1,406 career stolen bases
With the art of the stolen base dying out, rapid Rickey will find it hard to be caught for spot in these rankings, as hard as opposing players found it to catch him on the base paths.
*Okay, admittedly the former Oakland Athletics speedster was caught stealing an MLB record 335 times during his career but the joke doesn’t quite work as well when mentioning that.
When it came to the art of swiping bags, this man was truly the undisputed master of it throughout his 25 years in the big leagues.
He has many honours relating to the stealing of bases, including setting the single season record (130), being the only AL player to steal into triple digits, the only MLB player to achieve 100 steals and 100 walks in the same year and the all-time record of 1,406 as well as the record for runs scored.
From 1979 until 2003, the Hall of Famer was only outside of the league’s top 10 in steals on five occasions and broke the 100 barrier three times, slipped under 30 stolen bases just eight times and terrorised pitchers and catchers alike with his fearless running.
Given the massive and ongoing decline in stolen bases, this is a record which is set to stand the test of time, particularly when you consider that teams will only give runners the green light if their success percentage for stealing is at 80%.
The frightening thing is that if Henderson played today, he may not be given such a free reign as his overall career numbers sit below that hallowed cutoff point.