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The Greatest Records in Baseball

Baseball

One of the qualities of Major League Baseball that makes it a special and unique league is the ability to compare career statistics and performances across multiple generations. For this reason, the association is incredibly protective of their traditions and reluctant to make significant changes that may render some past careers less meaningful.

However, try as they may, you can research the various record-setting years and careers and see the subtle differences between the different eras, though many of the numbers still impress no matter when they took place. The feats accomplished by Babe Ruth in the early 1900s are even considered remarkable by today’s standards, for example.

This gives historians and baseball fans a unique look into the game’s past where they can see the trends and rules dictating the strategies of the time. You’ll notice that the majority of the pitching records belong to the distant past. Things like pitch counts and bullpens weren’t adopted until the modern era, making numerous volume-based pitching records unbreakable by any current player.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, throwers would often pitch the entire game, with little rest between starts. In fact, there are numerous accounts of pitchers going in consecutive games, even in doubleheaders!

Meanwhile, due to the evolution of science as well as baseball, many of the hitting records came much more recently. While some of the most impressive accomplishments regarding contact and averages occurred decades ago, power-hitting numbers peaked in the 2000s amidst the steroid era.

Now, we are in the analytics era of the MLB, where advanced statistics rule and things like on-base percentage and runs created matter more than the traditional numbers from before. Regardless, when the statisticians research the game in those early eras, they find that many of the athletes would feel just as at home in the current game.

So, while changes are bound to occur over the course of a century, we still have a sport with numerous cross-generational comparisons worth making. And that’s what makes Major League Baseball’s record books so fascinating.

Winningest MLB Regular Season (162 games, post-1961)

Seattle Mariners

  • Record: 116 wins/46 losses
  • Owner: Seattle Mariners
  • Year: 2001

If you look at the top-ten regular-season records ever recorded, nine of them took place prior to Major League Baseball extending their season to 162 games. The only exception is the 2001 Seattle Mariners club that won 116 games and only lost 46.

Seattle was powered by their Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki, whose debut season could not have made a more massive impact. He adapted to the MLB game immediately, leading the league in batting average and winning the American League MVP honor in his first year.

In their twenty-fifth season, the Mariners set a record for wins by an AL team and advanced to the American League Championship Series. In the ALCS, the miracle run finally came to an end at the hand of the dynastic Yankees, who proceeded to their fourth consecutive World Series. To date, the 2001 race was the last time the Seattle Mariners have qualified for the post-season.

Most World Series Championships

  • Record: 27
  • Owner: New York Yankees

The New York Yankees are one of the most successful professional sports franchises in the entire world, regardless of sport. Not only have they set records for the most division titles and pennants, but they own the distinction of winning the most World Series championships in MLB history. Their 27 titles aren’t just good enough for the record; they more than double the second-place St. Louis Cardinals who only have 11 championships.

The Yankees have reached the World Series on 40 occasions, giving them a .675 winning percentage with the title on the line. Their first Series win came back in 1923, and they won two more during the decade. New York won another five during the 1930s, four in the ‘40s, six in the 1950s, and four in the ‘60s and ‘70s before cooling off for a decade.

Then, in the 1990s, led by their new core, including Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera, the Bronx Bombers were back on top. They broke their cold spell in 1996 with their twenty-third World Series Championship. Then, from 1998 through 2000, the Yanks won three straight. Their most recent World Series win came in 2009.

Most AL Pennants

  • Record: 40
  • Owner: New York Yankees

As we mentioned in the World Series section, the New York Yankees also own the honor of winning the most American League pennants. In their 53 playoff appearances, they’ve advanced to represent the AL in the championship series all but thirteen times. The team in second place has only won only 15 pennants, which further demonstrates how dominant the Yankees have been over the rest of the MLB, historically.

Most NL Pennants

  • Record: 23
  • Owner: San Francisco Giants

In the National League, no franchise has won more pennants than the San Francisco Giants. Although, it should be noted that some of these were accomplished when the club was still located in New York. The Giants advanced to their first World Series as NL representatives in 1905, which they won.

This record is tightly contested, with the Los Angeles Dodgers sitting only one pennant behind San Francisco with twenty-two of their own. With the Dodgers fielding extremely talented squads in recent years, this record is unlikely to stay with the Giants for much longer.

Most MLB MVP Awards

Barry Bonds

  • Record: 7
  • Owner: Barry Bonds

Major League Baseball’s Most Valuable Player Award is a regular-season honor that has been presented to the season’s most outstanding performer following the conclusion of the World Series. Since 1931, the year the acknowledgment was established, no player in league history has been given the honor more times than Barry Bonds. The first of the controversial slugger’s seven MVPs came in 1990 as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He then won again in 1992, 1993, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. His four consecutive awards in the early 2000s came when he was the most feared hitter in the game, dominating all power-hitting numbers and boasting an insane on-base percentage. This included his 2001 campaign in which he set a single-season record that still stands, with 73 homers.

Most All-Star Game Selections

  • Record: 25
  • Owner: Hank Aaron

Hammerin’ Hank Aaron is one of the greatest players to ever participate in organized baseball. The MLB All-Century Team member owns several records, including 2,297 career RBIs, 6,856 total bases, and 1,477 extra-base hits. He also held the career home run record for decades until 2001, when it was controversially surpassed by Barry Bonds.

Despite all of his honors, perhaps none are more impressive than his 25 All-Star Game selections. While he owns the record for elections, he only played in 24, which puts him in a three-way tie for most “All-Star Games played in” with Willie Mays and Stan Musial. This is a record that is unlikely ever to be toppled due to Aaron’s otherworldly longevity.

Most Consecutive Games Played

  • Record: 2632
  • Owner: Cal Ripken Jr.

From 1982 until 1998, Cal Ripken Jr. never missed a game. After surpassing Lou Gehrig’s previous record of 2,130 consecutive games, Ripken played in another 502 straight contests before finally ending his streak. This is a record that is likely to stand forever, barring some medical breakthroughs in the future that drastically increase recovery rates, overall health, and stamina in athletes.

To put this record into perspective, a player would need to play all 162 games per year for sixteen straight seasons. Even that unlikely feat would only get them to 2,592 consecutive matchups, still forty games short. LIFE magazine said about the record, “No one else has ever come close, and no one ever will.”

Most Stolen Bases

  • Record: 1270
  • Owner: Rickey Henderson

Rickey Henderson recorded three separate 100-stolen-base seasons, in addition to thirteen campaigns in which he stole at least 50. He played for 25 seasons over which time he amassed 1406 SBs, 468 more than Lou Brock, who occupies second place in the rankings. In addition to his all-time great career numbers, he also holds the single-season steals record with 130 and stole the most bases in a single postseason series with 8 in the 1989 American League Championship Series.

Henderson was drafted in 1976 by the Oakland A’s, where he played for fourteen years total over four different stints. The twelve-time steals king was also selected to 10 All-Star teams, as well as the 1990 American League MVP. Lastly, he has two World Series rings, won in 1989 and 1993. For an overall incredibly impressive career, Rickey will always be most known for his unmatched ability to steal bases.

Pitching Records

Career Wins

Cy Youngs

  • Record: 511
  • Owner: Cy Young

Cy Young not only has several untouchable pitching records, but he probably has the distinction of having the most unbeatable career accomplishments. One of his most incredible achievements is winning 511 games as a starting pitcher. Many baseball historians believe we saw the last 300-game-winner with Greg Maddux back 2004.

Between the years of 1890 and 1911, Cy Young won twenty games in fifteen different seasons and put up another five thirty-win campaigns as well. Due to the modern-day management of pitchers involving pitch-counts, bullpens, and larger pitching rotations, this one is unlikely to ever be topped.

For a someone to surpass Young’s 511 wins, one of today’s throwers would have to play for twenty consecutive seasons while averaging twenty-five wins. Even then, they’d be eleven wins short, making it even more absurd. This a record that’s as much a product of the times as it is Cy Young’s unquestionable talent.

Most Career No-Hitters

  • Record: 7
  • Owner: Nolan Ryan

It’s possible that someone will throw more no-hitters than Nolan Ryan, but thus far, nobody has even come close. In fact, Ryan’s seven no-no’s are almost twice the number of Sandy Koufax’s four no-hitters, which are good enough for second place. Besides those two men, no one has ever pitched more than three such games.

Almost equally impressive, Nolan also owns the lead for most no-hitters broken up. This occurs when a pitcher reaches the seventh inning without giving up a hit, before ultimately conceding his first to the offense late in the game. He came that close to extending his record in twenty-four contests, a full thirteen games more than second-place.

Most Career Complete Games

  • Record: 749
  • Owner: Cy Young

The career complete games record is the most absurdly unobtainable pitching feat ever earned. Cy Young, who also owns the top spot for total games pitched with 815, completed ninety-two percent of his starts, unheard of by today’s standards. During Young’s era, managers didn’t have the medical knowledge or statistical data to convince them that expecting a complete game from every thrower’s start was unrealistic and counterproductive.

What’s crazy is that only two other pitchers have even started as many games as Cy Young completed. For someone to match this record, they’d need to average at least thirty complete games per year over the course of twenty-five seasons. Since 2000, only two pitchers have had ten complete games thrown in any given season.

Nowadays, no coaching staff would even allow their pitcher to attempt playing this many full games. Due to the enormous financial investments required to sign the top starting pitchers, hurlers are placed on strict pitch-count limits. Furthermore, teams know that fresh bullpen throwers are more likely to lead to wins than a fatigued starter. This record is beyond unreachable. The active player with the most complete games is CC Sabathia, who only has 38.

Most Career Shutouts

  • Record: 110
  • Owner: Walter Johnson

Walter Johnson is another player that competed in the early days of baseball, between 1907 and 1927. During his twenty-year career, he successfully shut the other team out 110 times, twenty more shutouts than the second-place pitcher, Pete Alexander, recorded. If you only count players from the modern era, Nolan Ryan has the most with 61 shutouts.

In eleven different years, Johnson shut his opponent out at least six times. In today’s game, the MLB leader in this statistic usually only threw four shutouts on average. If a pitcher were to beat this record, they’d need to throw for 22 years while averaging five shutout games per season. Without a significant jump in medicine that allows athletes to play much more frequently without fearing injury, no one will ever get close to challenging this mark.

Career Strikeouts

  • Record: 5714
  • Owner: Nolan Ryan

Nolan Ryan spent more time playing in the majors than any other player. In his twenty-seven seasons, he notched 5,714 strikeouts. He was Major League Baseball’s leader in the statistic for eleven years, including fifteen 200-strikeout seasons, and another six in which he put up 300! To understand how remarkable those numbers are, realize that between 2005 and 2014, no thrower in the league struck more than 280 batters out.

Since 2014, only three pitchers have exceeded 280. Only two pitchers, Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw, have hit 300 at all, showing how Nolan Ryan’s record is all but unbeatable. A hurler would need to play for twenty-three seasons while averaging 250 strikeouts per year surpass Ryan’s accomplishment. That’s a tall task; there aren’t too many players that come along who throw as hard as Nolan or enjoy his otherworldly durability.

Consecutive No-Hitters

  • Record: 2
  • Owner: Johnny Vander Meer

Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters back in 1938 is what LIFE magazine called “The most unbreakable of all baseball records.” While this isn’t technically true, since there are other pitching records that are legitimately impossible due to modern philosophies regarding rest and pitch counts, it’s still highly improbable that anyone will throw three.

Believe it or not, other throwers have come relatively close to tying this record. In 1947, Ewell Blackwell threw a no-hitter that he followed up by going eight and two-thirds innings before giving up a single. In 2015, Max Scherzer pitched a one-hitter the game before a no-hitter. With athletes coming so close to matching this feat, it seems likely that single-season Vander Meer will be sharing this record with another player. However, extending that number to three games is another matter altogether.

Most Career Saves

  • Record: Mariano Rivera
  • Owner: 652

The Sandman, Mariano Rivera, was a vital member of the Yankees teams of the ‘90s and 2000s that won four World Series rings. From 1995 through 2013, Rivera was one of the most feared closers in the game, jamming batter after batter with his trademark cutter. With so many pitches thrown in at the hands, broken bats were a common occurrence for his opponents.

He had thirty or more saves in fifteen different seasons, nine of which he achieved consecutively. In fifteen straight years, he earned at least twenty-five saves, which is a record as well. Reaching Mariano’s record is going to take a brilliant pitcher and generational talent. It will take thirty saves per year over a twenty-two-season career to match this incredible record. While it hypothetically could eventually happen, you shouldn’t hold your breath.

Most Wins in a Single Season

  • Record: 59
  • Owner: Old Hoss Radbourn
  • Year: 1884

The most wins any pitcher in the twenty-first century has recorded in a single season is twenty-four, which Randy Johnson and Justin Verlander both managed. This means that Old Hoss Radbourn’s fifty-nine back in 1884 won’t ever be challenged. In fact, in this century, only three pitchers have even started more than thirty-five games.

What Radbourn accomplished in his record-setting year would essentially be the equivalent of three solid MLB seasons for an upper-tier pitcher. There hasn’t even been a thrower that won thirty games since Denny McLain in 1968. And even that was before managers were as strict about how frequently their pitchers threw. This record will be standing for as long as Major League Baseball exists.

Hitting Records

Most Career Home Runs

  • Record: 762
  • Owner: Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds’ overtaking of Hank Aaron’s historical record was met with quite a bit of pessimism and controversy. As a participant in the game’s steroid era, there has been a cloud of suspicion around all of his accomplishments earned late in his career. His association with the BALCO doping scandal has further tarnished his name with baseball diehards.

Especially late in Bonds’ career, he was the most feared hitter in all of baseball. He was the National League MVP for four consecutive years from 2001 through 2004, during which time he hit 73, 46, 45, and 45 homers respectively. Over the course of his last few MLB seasons, the Giants slugger passed several legends of the game before finally ascending to the top of the all-time list.

While Barry Bonds’ power-hitting accomplishments are recognized by the MLB, because he was never busted by a steroid drug test, his records are still considered controversial. Even in the Hall of Fame, the record-setting 756th home run ball is marked with an asterisk, which was added by the purchaser of the famous relic, Marc Ecko. While this celebrated record may possibly be broken someday, it’s going to take a special player, and people will wonder how it’s possible to surpass a player like Barry Bonds without performance-enhancing drugs.

Most Home Runs in a Single Season

  • Record: 73
  • Owner: Barry Bonds

As we mentioned in the previous section, Barry Bonds’ 2001 season was a brilliant display of power hitting, the likes of which Major League Baseball had never seen before. And that’s saying something, considering the league had just experienced the performance-enhancing chase of 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Roger Maris’ mark of 61 home runs in a single season stood for 37 years before being broken by both men, Sosa with 66 and McGwire with 70.

So soon after McGwire broke the single-season record, it was under attack once again. Only a few seasons later, the Giants slugger matched the Cardinals legend’s 70 homers in route to 73 of his own. Interestingly enough, in the years after the home run race, Maris’ record was removed from the top spot and dropped all the way to seventh place.

It’s been seventeen years since Barry Bonds set his single-season record, and no one has come close to challenging it. In fact, the closest anyone has come was Giancarlo Stanton in 2017, when he launched 59 homers, tying Babe Ruth for ninth on the all-time list. Like Bonds’ career home run record, this single-season mark may be broken one day, but the feat will attract many questions regarding performance-enhancing drugs should it happen.

Most Career Hits

Pete Ross

  • Record: 4256
  • Owner: Pete Rose

When it comes to some of the most cherished hitting records, they seem to be owned by the most controversial figures in the sport. Unlike Bonds, Pete Rose earned his stats without any scandal or whispers of cheating, but he was later busted for gambling on the game of baseball. He was subsequently banned from Major League Baseball and then barred from the Hall of Fame as well.

Regardless, when Rose was still a player, he was one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. In his prime, he was a member of the Big Red Machine-era Cincinnati Reds, with whom he won two World Series championships. From 1963 to 1986, Charlie Hustle amassed 4,256 hits in 3,562 games, both of which are MLB records. The second-place hits leader is Ty Cobb with 4,191, only 65 fewer than Rose.

The closest active player to the mark set by Pete Rose is Adrian Beltre. He’s in twentieth place with only 3,114 hits in his twentieth MLB season. This illustrates how difficult it will be to match the controversial Reds legend’s record. It’s still possible, but it’s going to take a remarkable player under the ideal conditions.

Longest Hitting Streak

  • Record: 56 games
  • Owner: Joe DiMaggio
  • Year: 1941

Joe DiMaggio’s 56 consecutive games with at least one hit is one of the most impressive batting performances in the history of the sport. DiMaggio played for the New York Yankees for the entirety of his thirteen-year career, winning nine World Series and three American League MVP awards in the process. He finished his time in the game with a .325 batting average and 361 home runs, which was good for fifth on the all-time list at the time of his retirement.

It was in 1941 that the Yankee Clipper accomplished his historic hitting streak. From May 15 through July 16, 1941, DiMaggio scored at least one hit in every game he played. The previous record was 41 games, set by George Sisler, and the closer to this goal Joe got, the more fascinated the public became. Despite all of the attention and pressure, the Yankees legend continued his streak, finally tying Sisler’s total on June 29th.

He wasn’t done there. Before frenzied crowds, DiMaggio continued extending his new record until June 17, playing the Cleveland Indians on the road. Immediately after breaking the streak, he heated right back up, putting together another 16-game streak. This means he ultimately got a hit in 72 of 73 games, which may be even more astounding than the incredible record itself.

Highest Career Batting Average

  • Record: .367 batting average
  • Owner: Ty Cobb

Ty Cobb is historically considered one of the top three baseball players of all time. Called “The Georgia Peach,” the outfielder played for twenty-three years, twenty-two of them with the Detroit Tigers. He’s been named one of the most excellent hitters the game has ever seen, which is consistent with the 90 individual Major League Baseball records he set during his career, along with his twelve American League batting championships.

For decades, he owned the all-time hits record as well, which Pete Rose eventually beat by 65 hits. While most of Cobb’s records fell to different legendary players over time, his career batting average still stands to this day. Over his twenty-three seasons, Ty averaged a .367 batting average, an incredible achievement in consistency. He wasn’t a power hitter, with only 117 home runs, but no other player made contact like him.

In baseball, it’s often said that a .300 career batting average is Hall of Fame worthy. Ty Cobb averaged roughly six or seven percent higher than that for the entirety of his entire career. This is why, despite his controversial past filled with claims of racism and abuse, he’s still celebrated for his achievements on the field.

Highest Single-Season Batting Average

  • Record: .440
  • Owner: Hugh Duffy
  • Year: 1894

In 1894, Hugh Duffy was absolutely on fire in the batter’s box. As a member of the Boston Beaneaters, he put together one of the greatest single seasons in the game’s history. Not only did he record a .440 batting average, but Duffy also went on a twenty-six-game hitting streak, led the league with eighteen homers, and drove in 145 runs.

In the modern game, it is highly unlikely that this record will ever be broken. Looking at the top twenty single-season batting averages recorded, almost all of them come at the end of the nineteenth century or early in the twentieth century. The most recent was Ted Williams’ .406 season-long hitting average completed in 1941.

There may be several factors which explain why all of these unusually high batting averages occurred in the early days of the game. For one, pitchers were expected to throw complete games, meaning they were often fatigued. Furthermore, because of these expectations, throwers wouldn’t put everything into every pitch the way they do today. Without specialized relievers and closers, hitting the ball wasn’t quite the massive challenge that it is today.

Regardless of era, Hugh Duffy’s batting average record is still a phenomenal accomplishment. After all, nobody else that played during his time was able to surpass his .440 percentage. Like so many of the Major League Baseball records that we’ve examined, this one should stand for as long as the league exists.

In Conclusion

As you have seen from the numerous extraordinary records summarized above, Major League Baseball has enjoyed incredible performances from very talented athletes all throughout the game’s history. Sure, some of these incredible statistical accomplishments are a product of the era in which the games were played, but they still led the league in their time and place. For that reason, even the marks that are unobtainable in today’s game should be appreciated and respected for standing out even amongst their peers.

Other records, such as Barry Bonds’ two home run records, are treated quite differently. His years of hitting dominance are marred by rumors and controversies involving performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids. While he was never explicitly caught by failing a drug test, he was mentioned in the BALCO scandal and excelled during an era known for rampant steroid usage. In fact, he had some of his best years in his late 30s and early 40s, which is atypical for athletic performance.

While they’re full of unbeatable records, the history books for Major League Baseball give incredible insight into various moments in the sport. We can start with most pitching records. Due to the primitive pitching philosophies of early baseball, throwers were expected to finish the games they started rather than going only six or seven innings before handing the ball off to a reliever or closer. These old norms result in unbreakable records like Cy Young’s 749 complete games and 511 wins.

Similarly, we see the power-hitting numbers inflated during a brief period in baseball beginning in the mid-1980s and ending roughly around 2010. During this “steroid era,” performance-enhancing drugs were commonplace throughout the league. While they were technically banned, there was no testing protocol until 2003. Before that date, Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, which previously stood for 37 years, was broken six times, all between the years of 1998 and 2001.

Many of the circumstances of these records create some controversy among baseball historians. The players associated with the steroid era are struggling to gain acceptance into the Hall of Fame. While the details of the performances are polarizing, they do give us great insight into the history of the game. We can see which facets of the game were benefitting from the rules or culture of baseball at any given time.

However, while the numbers don’t always perfectly translate across generations, they are more comparable in baseball than in other sports. Football or basketball are hardly recognizable when compared to the earliest versions of their game. Baseball, on the other hand, stays relatively consistent thanks, in part, to great efforts put forth by the MLB to keep their records relevant.

While most shared here are the most impressive and unbreakable achievements in the game, on average, stats can be analyzed alongside athletes for other generations. This is one of the unique qualities that Major League Baseball possesses, which makes their Hall of Fame feel more celebrated and important. Their records tell a detailed story, which we hopefully helped you appreciate here today!