Records are meant to be broken or melt in the case of Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979. The disco demolition quickly turned disco inferno as thousands of vinyls were flung onto the field followed by fans and the much-anticipated disco bonfire flame up.The other kind of baseball records are a little harder to get rid of.
I remember Paul Molitor’s 39 game hitting streak. It was the summer of 1987 and began as a routine double off the Angel’s Kirk McCaskill in mid July, but then it grew legs and stretched into a month-long marathon. Every day we watched as old names we had barely heard of melted away, names like Nap Lajoie, Heinie Manush, and Rogers Hornsby. We couldn’t stop ourselves from dreaming Dimaggio.
And then on August 30th Molitor stood in the on deck circle at County Stadium in a game against the Cleveland Indians. John Farrell (current manager of the Boston Red Sox) had held Molitor hitless for nine innings. It was the bottom of the tenth and Molitor’s streak was in jeopardy. Rick Manning did the unthinkable. He lined a sharp single to center field. We sort of booed as the winning run scored. No, we definitely booed.
Molitor reached 7th on the all time hitting streak list behind Keeler, Rose, Dahlen, Sisler, Cobb, and of course Dimaggio. But he was still 18 games-hits short and to make Dimaggio’s streak even more daunting, the day after 56, he began a new streak of 16 games.
Regardless, I was never the same after the summer of 1987. If a player hit safely in as few as 20 games, I watched closely. And why wouldn’t I? Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs were once considered unreachable and then a scrawny kid named Henry Aaron-an African-American happened and on April 8, 1974, he became the new home run king. Aaron endured death threats on top of major league pitching and still managed to hit 755 home runs.
I watched Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens strike out 20 batters in a game-the only two pitchers to do so in the history of baseball. That covers nearly 150 years. Wood did it in 1998 and Clemens did it twice. (1986 and 1996) As much as I would love to see a pitcher punch out 21 batters, I feel like these one game wonders are like bottle rockets or one night stands; here today-gone tomorrow. A streak, on the other hand, holds us captive for entire summers.
I remember when George Brett flirted with a .400 average in 1980, finishing 10 freaking points short at .390. Five or six more seeing eye singles and we would have had our generation’s Ted Williams, the last to hit .400, oddly enough in 1941-the same year Dimaggio hit safely in those 56 consecutive games.
And then Tony Gwynn knocked on .400’s door in 1994, but then the worst thing in the world happened. A player’s strike washed away the season and we were left with nothing but Gwynn’s .394 average and the 50 or so games that were never played.
The batting average (hits/at bats) no longer rules the roost among baseball fans. It’s been replaced by more diverse metric formulas, but a .400 batting average has been maintained by only 8 players since 1900. It’s hard to imagine, but a player may hit .400 one of these years and still be scrutinized for not walking enough or enjoying a lucky season with an irregular BABIP (batting average of balls in play)
A hitting streak, on the other hand, topping 56 games will bask in the glory of Heinz 57 and no will be able to compute a single argument. The player will instantly become the long-awaited poster boy of Ketchup’s most popular brand. Heinz now has over 5,000 products on the market and yet, they still use that 57 varieties slogan. Dimaggio was promised 10,000 dollars by Heinz to endorse their products if he reached 57. To hopefully be continued one day….