On Bonds and Records

By | May 31, 2006

I had a thought-provoking day today, about records and Barry Bonds and stuff. Jayson Stark wrote an article on ESPN.com about the most glamorous records in baseball that aren’t related to home runs. There were a couple things that started out separate but ended up intertwined. He started his article with this:

If the biggest name in baseball can hit his 715th home run and nobody outside the 415 area code even claps, that should tell us something.

And not just about the man hitting the home run.

It should tell us something about what has become of the mighty home run itself.

At some point in the article, he ended up discussing how only in baseball does the word “modern” mean “since 1900,” and saying we need a new standard for “modern records,” because the game has changed so much since 1900 that some “modern” records (notably Jack Chesbro’s 41 wins in 1904 and Nap Lajoie’s .426 batting average in 1901) will never be broken. That prompted him to put up this sidebar:

In 1901, there were no such things as radios, TVs, toasters, cars or even cornflakes. So only baseball could consider 1901 to be part of “modern” times.

Well, we think it’s time to create a new set of “modern” records that reflect how the game is played now. We lean toward starting our new “modern” record book in 1969 (division play, lowered mound) or 1961 (expansion). But we’re open to suggestions.

Send us your thoughts about when you’d begin the new history of modern baseball — or whether you’d mess with the current setup at all. Operators are standing by at uselessinfodept@yahoo.com.

I actually read the sidebar and responded before I read the entire article, and the exchange I had with Stark ended up summing up my feelings on the matter of records and Barry Bonds. Here is the exchange:

I wrote:


I like the fact that modern records go back to the turn of the last century. The big thing for me is the rulebook. Sure, the rules are always changing, but since the mound was moved to 60’6″, the players have (mostly) been playing with the same set of rules. The game evolves, sure, but that’s a good thing. Your suggestions of 1961 and 1969 would cut out Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, and really, does Pete Rose need another record. The records that were real and enduring will last and give the current players something to shoot for; the ones that couldn’t cut it will be beat. No need to change the time frame.

But I’m a baseball purist, I guess.


He responded:


I’m not out to eliminate anybody’s records. I’m just trying to find a way to compare all the apples to other apples and all the oranges to other oranges. Tough job, but somebody has to do it!

Thanks for writing.

And my response, after I had read the entire article and had some time to think about it:

I know what you mean. I guess I just have a different opinion about fruit than you do. I don’t think we are talking apples and oranges here, but I can’t think of a better analogy. Maybe two different variations of apples. Or the same variation of apples, but grown with different technology. There are some records with regards to pitching endurance that will never be matched (41 wins, or even Denny McLain’s 31, as you mentioned in the article and the chat; Cy Young’s 511 wins; etc.), but other than those and the batting record (which is probably also a result of the fact that pitchers pitched a lot more back then), I think every record is approachable. And I think attempting to give new context to things by redefining the modern era is a losing battle, because the game is constantly changing. We had expansion starting in 1961; we had the mounds lowered in 1969; we had the DH in 1973; we had Colorado and steroids starting in the early 90s; we had interleague play and expanded playoffs in the mid-90s. The game is constantly changing, so I think the most historically accurate comparison is still the current “modern era” of post-1900.

That said, I think your article made a good point (and I have to mention, I wrote my previous email before I had read the whole article; I had just read the first paragraph and then the little blurb about the modern era): there are magic numbers other than records. If Johan Santana won 32 games next year, no one would care that he didn’t break Jack Chesbro’s record; they would recognize it as an amazing feat in this day and age. Same with someone batting .400 or .395 or whatever. I think if we try to actively define the era, we are doing it wrong. True baseball fans like you and me know history when we see it; we don’t need to go to the record books and figure out if it is a record for a certain era.

And THAT is why no one cared when Barry Bonds passed Babe Ruth the other day: we knew we weren’t seeing history, no matter what the record books tell us. We looked and saw an illegal scientific breakthrough. We saw a broken down old man who would have retired a couple years ago accomplishing a feat of Endurance by Balco. We know history when we see it, and that was not it.

I had wondered why I didn’t care when Bonds hit 715, and I figured it out. Now I feel better.

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