The following was published on SI.com on May 18, 2007 as part of the site’s short-lived Fungoes blog for which I wrote the Friday “Wild Card” entries. It is one of several of my older articles that was lost in the site’s redesign in June 2014. I’m republishing it here, unaltered, from my original submission, prior to any editing by SI.com’s editors.
Last Tuesday, Barry Bonds hit a solo home run off Tom Glavine for the only Giants’ run in a 4-1 loss to the Mets. That home run put him exactly ten behind Hank Aaron’s career home run record of 755. Since then, Bonds has gone just 2 for 16 (a single and a double), but walked nine times. Still, it’s now all but inevitable that Bonds, who entered the season 21 homers shy of Aaron, will break Aaron’s record this season.
The thought of the surly, unlikable Bonds, who allegedly used illicit means to get into this position, breaking the record the gentlemanly, heroic Aaron claimed in the face of intense racial hatred conjures up a wide variety of unpleasant reactions in nearly every baseball fan. Most fans, consciously or not, still think of Roger Maris’s 61 home runs, not Bonds’s 73, as the single-season record. I don’t have the time, space, or energy to get into the legitimacy of Bonds’s accomplishments right now, but it seems as though the closer Bonds comes to Hank’s 755, the more the mind races for ways to defang, if not outright undermine his accomplishment.
This all got me thinking about the nature of sports records in general. When Maris was bearing down on Babe Ruth’s single-season mark of 60 home runs in 1961, there was a similar recoiling by baseball purists who hadn’t anticipated Ruth’s homer marks ever being broken, and certainly not by a flash-in-the-pan such as Maris. As Maris neared the record, then-Commissioner Ford Frick, who was once Ruth’s ghostwriter, famously declared that Maris, who was chasing Ruth in the first year of expansion for which the season had been extended from 154 games to 162, would have to break Ruth’s record by the Yankees’ 154th game or suffer the cruel indignity of having his mark listed separately as the “162-game record” (no, Virginia, there never was an asterisk, now go tell Billy Crystal). Maris had just 58 homers after 154 games and thus his record, which is now considered the “pure” record, was listed separately until Fricks’ distinction was abandoned in 1991.
History (and Crystal) vilified Frick for that decision, but here’s the thing: statistically speaking, Frick was right. Ruth hit 60 home runs in a 154-game season and Maris hit just 58 in a 154-game season, then, given an extra eight games, hit three more. If the point of the single-season home run record was to honor the player who could hit the most home runs in a limited number of opportunities, Frick’s method was the right one. Of course, if that was the point, the record would belong to Bill Lefebvre, who, as a rookie pitcher for the Red Sox in 1938, hit a home run in his only plate appearance of the season. Need a larger sample? What about outfielder Ed Sanicki, who hit three home runs in 15 plate appearances for the Phillies in 1949? Or Ted Williams, who hit 13 homers in 110 plate appearances (8.46 PA/HR) after returning from Korea in 1953. Heck, if Frick was so interested in honoring home run frequency, he should have shifted the record from Ruth’s 60 in 1927 (11.52 PA/HR) to Ruth’s 59 in 1920 (10.42 PA/HR).
Of course, that’s not the point of the single-season home run record. The point isn’t how often, it’s how many. Cumulative records such as the single-season and career home run records are more primal than rate-based records such as batting average or ERA. Quick, who holds the single-season batting average record? Come on, this was the single statistic that was used to compare hitters for nearly all of the twentieth century. When a hitter leads the league in batting average, he’s not called the “batting average leader,” he’s the winner of the batting crown, he leads the league in hitting. Being a .300 hitter is supposed to say something fundamental about a player’s ability, if not their character. Got an answer yet? Is it Hugh Duffy’s .440 in 1894 or Nap Lajoie’s “modern” record of .427 in 1901? What’s the minimum number of plate-appearances required for this record anyway?
See what I mean? That’s not “most,” that’s math. The home run record is most, and the man who hit the most home runs in a single season as of October 1961 was Roger Maris. It didn’t matter that he had more chances than Ruth, the fact was no man had ever hit 61 home runs in a single season of any length, it had never been done. That’s what a record is, something that’s never been done. When Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998, that had never been done, and if say you weren’t as awed by McGwire’s total as he was by himself, you’re probably lying.
Barry Bonds broke McGwire’s single-season record in 2001 and, though by then the baseball world had become jaded by allegations of steroid use and by the onslaught of 60-plus home run seasons (Bonds’ was the fifth in four years and Sammy Sosa would make it six that same year), no one had ever hit 73 home runs in a single baseball season before Bonds did it that year, and no one has done it since. That’s the definition of a record.
I remember watching the 1988 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles when I was a kid and seeing Ben Johnson run 100 meters in 9.79 seconds. No man had ever been recorded traversing that distance in so short a time in the entirety of human history. Three days later, it was revealed that Johnson had tested positive for the steroid Stanozolol. Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in light of his positive test, which I understood, but he was also stripped of his world record, which I didn’t. I understood that he had cheated, but the simple fact was that no man had ever been clocked running 100 meters in less time. How could the Olympic Committee pretend that had never happened? It’s one thing to disqualify a boxer from a fight, or a player or team from a game, but a sheer physical accomplishment like that could never be disqualified in my mind.
So sometime in the next month or two, Barry Bonds will hit his 756th career home run, and there will be much pulling of hair, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, and crunching of numbers, but the simple fact will be that no man has ever hit 756 regular season home runs in the major leagues, ever, and that, despite the taint and dishonor that Bonds may bring along with him to that summit, is a record.