When is a sports record not a worthy record because of circumstances?
Indeed, one of the growing numbers of Sporting Scene denizens, Alfredo de la Rosa, a thoughtful and articulate artist who lives in Colorado, took Your Humble and Obedient Columnist to task for a recent column. In the piece on the huge success this year of the New York Yankees and their chances of setting the record as winningest major league baseball team ever, it was observed: "In a way, one hopes not because the old records are the best records."
That flew all over Mr. de la Rosa who shot back: "I think any baseball record before Jackie Robinson became a Dodger is suspect since only Caucasian players were permitted before the mid-1940s to play the game."
That dog can't even get off the porch, much less hunt. We certainly can dissect records and discuss them. But if we are to start somehow applying today's sensitivities to yesterday's results, we're in a peck of trouble.
To subscribe to such a theory, we would have to say Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb would not have near the record stature they do had they played with blacks and Latinos. Indeed, their records might have been different, but would they have been reduced to just some more boys in the band? Nope.
But if you want to be obstinate, then you have to consider the Negro League records. What if Ruth and DiMaggio and Cobb had played in those leagues? Every baseball fan has admiration and enormous affection for the late black pitching star Satchel Paige, who set many a towering record in 24 years in the black leagues. But if Ruth's achievements are tainted because the competition was all white, Paige's must be because his foes were all black. (In six twilight years, Paige did pitch in the then-integrated major leagues, where he had a 28-31 record.) Goose and gander are applicable here.
Records can be questioned on myriad fronts. Pete Rose holds the career hit record of 4,256, 67 more than previous record holder, Ty Cobb. But Rose had 2,619 more at bats. So, Cobb got a hit once in each 2.73 times up while Rose managed a hit every 3.30 times. So is Rose's record tainted?
Notre Dame won four of its national collegiate football championships prior to 1950 when the competitive landscape was enormously different. Since then, it has won five more when competition and knowledge and equipment have become vastly superior. Does that make the earlier titles less laudable?
The all-time leading college basketball scorer is Louisiana State University's Pistol Pete Maravich, with 3,667 points. His last year in college was 1970 and he set the mark in just 83 games. Of the Top 15 leading scorers in history, Maravich played in the fewest games. Now that's a record.
Wilt Chamberlain had 55 rebounds for Philadelphia in a game against Boston, almost 38 winters ago. Now that's a record.
Baseball's strikeout king is Nolan Ryan, with 5,714 in 27 years. Ryan and the next five on the all-time list did it after Robinson and plenty of other minorities arrived.
The overriding point is that old is good when it comes to athletic records. Sure, context counts. Although high school runners often break the four-minute mile today, when Roger Bannister broke it in 1954 it was an achievement. At some level, athletics is about breaking mental barriers of the day.
But we revere old marks all the more because they have stood the test of time. They just have a glorious patina, like good cherry furniture. We don't want to see Harry Vardon's record six British Open golf wins (last one: 1914) eclipsed or Notre Dame's Knute Rockne's winningest percentage ever for a college coach (.881) bettered.
That's because old records look great, like a '57 Chevy.
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org