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The Good Life

Unbroken

The greatest records in sports are unforgettable athletic achievements. Many will never be equaled.
By Kenneth Shouler | From Stranger Things Star David Harbour, September/October 2020
Unbroken
Photo/Paul Vathis/AP Photo
Wilt Chamberlain makes history as he is the first and last NBA player to score in the triple digits.

It was once said that art is long and life is short. So it is with sports records: records set over long tracts of time—and not merely over months or a year—are often more impressive than records of short duration. The greatest marks aren’t merely the ones most cited in tavern talk or on sports radio. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak—lasting a third of a baseball season—often gets cited, uncritically, as “the most unbreakable record.” But it’s far from the greatest, or even the one with the longest odds of being matched.

To say a record won’t be broken is often true, but doesn’t take us far enough in ranking them. While some of the feats listed here might one day fall, some will undoubtedly never be broken. All are remarkable.

20. The Lakers Win 33 In A Row

The Los Angeles Lakers won 33 consecutive games during the 1971–72 NBA season, with 16 points as their average margin of victory. Remember: the NBA season stretches for a mere 82 games, so this streak accounts for 40 percent of a season. Lakers forward Jim McMillan waxed prophetic: “We just finished a streak that I don’t believe any other team is going to break.” He is still right. 

19. Navratilova’s 74 Consecutive Matches

It started with Martina Navratilova’s sweep of the U.S. Indoor Championships field in East Hanover, New Jersey in 1984. She was 27, and all but unstoppable. Those evicted (in straight sets) included Virginia Wade and Chris Evert. Navratilova won 74 straight (after being 86-1 in 1983), with just eight matches taking three sets. She won the French Open, U.S. Open  and Wimbledon that year, beating Evert in all three finals. Before she finally lost to Helena Suková in the Australian semifinal in December 1984, she held six consecutive Grand Slam titles, although she didn’t win all four in the same year.

18. Secretariat Running All By Himself

“Secretariat by 14 lengths on the turn,” intoned track announcer Chic Anderson. The lead swelled to 31 as Secretariat won the 1973 Belmont Stakes to secure the Triple Crown, the culmination of the chestnut colt’s run to immortality. He had won the Kentucky Derby in 1:59.40 and the Preakness in 1:53. In the Belmont Stakes, known as “The Test of the Champion” for its 1.5 mile distance, Secretariat ran a blistering 2:24. Each run was a record, and each still stands, 47 years later. 

17. Nicklaus Reigns Supreme At The Majors

It seemed inevitable that Tiger Woods would catch and surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major tournaments. But after racking up 14 by age 32, Woods is 44 and has won just one major since 2008. The “Golden Bear” leads—securely, it would seem—by three. Nicklaus enjoyed his coming out at the U.S. Open in 1962, when he was 22 years old. Arnold Palmer led by five strokes with 12 holes to play. Nicklaus made up five strokes in seven holes, forcing an 18-hole- playoff in which he held par, while Palmer shot three over. Twenty-five years later, at Augusta in 1986, Nicklaus won his last major at age 45.

16. Tom Brady Wins Six 

Editors' Note: Since this story was published, Tom Brady has gone on to win a seventh Super Bowl, as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, making his spot in the record books even more impressive.

Tom Brady is unquestionably the quarterback of this century, a century with a bustling field of eight divisions and 32 teams. He led the New England Patriots to a record six Super Bowl victories in 18 years, a stretch when only the Giants and Steelers won even two. He was drafted 199th overall (198 times human beings, inexplicably, decided to pick someone else) in the 2000 draft. The Patriots were never stacked with the rounded talent of the Packers of the ’60s, the Steelers of the ’70s, the 49ers during Joe Montana’s run or the Cowboys in the ’90s. Still, they won—three times more than any other team. Who else has been the difference maker for the team from Foxboro, save their peerless coach, Bill Belichick?

15. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio Make Their Marks

During the fabled 1941 baseball season, Joe DiMaggio got a hit in 56 consecutive games and Ted Williams hit .406, the last man to hit .400. Both are impressive feats. DiMaggio’s streak began on May 15 and ran to July 16, 1941, during which he collected 91 hits in 223 at bats and hit .408. When Williams entered the last day of the season hitting .3995, Red Sox manager Joe Cronin offered to let him sit out the doubleheader, a move that would have guaranteed Williams a .400 average due to rounding. But Williams played, going four-for-five in the first game and two-for-three in the second, finishing at .406. The closest anyone has come to hitting .400 since Williams was in 1994, when Tony Gwynn hit .393, but that was a strike-shortened season. Pete Rose came closest to DiMaggio, getting to 44 games in 1978. The feats by Williams and DiMaggio have stood for nearly 80 years and are inexorably linked in baseball lore.

14.  Phelps: A One Man Gold Rush

Michael Phelps won 23 Olympic gold medals competing from 2004 through 2016, and 28 medals overall. With his extra-long wingspan, huge feet that acted like flippers and a metabolism that was famously fueled by 10,000 calories a day, Phelps streaked through the water like a creature born with gills. His medal count exceeds anyone in history. Second place stands at 18 medals overall, and only nine golds. Phelps is the greatest swimmer—and Olympian—of all-time.

13. The Islanders’ Playoff Streak

Try thinking of a team in a major sport that won 19 consecutive playoff series. There’s just one: the New York Islanders. The team from the burbs didn’t have a demigod on skates, but they won four consecutive Stanley Cups and another three series with defense, sensational goaltending from Billy Smith, and by dominating overtimes. When they swept Vancouver in 1982, they became the first American-based team to win three straight cups. They were underdogs to Edmonton in ’83, but they swept the Oilers, holding the great Wayne Gretzky to no goals.

12. The Unreachable Rose

Imagine a hitter raking 200 hits for 20 straight baseball seasons. That imaginary player would still be 256 hits short of Pete Rose’s mark of 4,256. Rose rapped out 3,869 hits over his first 20 seasons, about 193 per season. Rose is also the leader in games (3,562), plate appearances (15,890), and at bats (14,053).  More than merely numbers on a page, Rose played the game hard. His nickname “Charlie Hustle” was given to him by Whitey Ford, who watched him sprinting to first in spring training. His hits record stands like granite, and the all-out manner in which he played remains indelibly etched in our minds.

11. 100 Points by Chamberlain

Wilt Chamberlain comes down to us like a latter-day Babe Ruth. In 1962, he averaged 50.4 points a game—no one else averaged even 40. On March 2, 1962, he absolutely crushed the NBA scoring record by putting up 100 points against the Knicks. Chamberlain scored the final two with only 46 seconds left on the clock in a game that wasn’t televised—no one is certain if the record shot was a dunk or a layup. Kobe Bryant ranks second, with 81, and Chamberlain is all over the Top 10 with more high-scoring games than anyone in NBA history. The man known as “The Big Dipper,” because he ducked to enter doorways, scored 50 points or more in 118 games and more than 20 in 126 straight. 

10. The Heavyweight Who Never Lost

Most every athlete learns the pain of defeat. Not Rocky Marciano. The heavyweight with heavy hands beat every man he faced, from Jersey Joe Walcott to Archie Moore and a 37-year-old Joe Louis. He was undefeated and untied in 49 professional fights from 1947–1955. He didn’t fight a fiftieth. “My physical condition has nothing to do with it,” said the man who knocked out 43 of his 49 opponents. “My lonesome family convinced me that I should quit while I’m still in shape.” 

9. Kareem The Scoring Machine 

At Power Memorial High School in New York, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) led his team to 71 consecutive wins and a 96-6 record. At UCLA, he won three titles and his teams were 88-2 in three years, including a perfect 30-0 in 1967. The greatest college basketball player of all-time, he led the Bruins to three national championships, and his dunk was so dominant it was banned (a prohibition that was dubbed The Lew Alcindor Rule) prior to the 1967–68 season. And he was only getting started. In the NBA he set record after record, most notably for most points in a career (38,387). He also won six MVP awards, another record that still stands. Less known is his taking Milwaukee to a title in just its third season, the fastest of any expansion team in major sports. In 1985, he became the oldest finals MVP at 38—with six other future Hall of Famers on the court—leading Los Angeles to its first title over Boston.

8. Cal Ripken’s 16-Year-Streak

The greatest first baseman ever to draw breath, Lou Gehrig, held baseball’s consecutive games record for 56 years, playing nonstop for 2,130 games. An RBI machine, the Iron Horse didn’t miss a game from the age of 22 until 35, when illness ended his career. When Baltimore infielder Cal Ripken broke Gehrig’s record on September 6, 1995, he proclaimed humbly: “Lou has monstrous numbers like Babe Ruth. How was it possible to compare him to me?” Ripken logged 2,632 straight games, a streak lasting from May 30, 1982 to September 19, 1998.  No one else is even close. Whit Merrifield, the current leader at 247 games, would need to play for more than 14 straight seasons to threaten Ripken’s mark.

7. Green Bay Wins A Record 13

A city of 104,000 people, Green Bay, Wisconsin, is the unlikely epicenter of pro football. The Packers have won a record 13 titles, nine before there was a Super Bowl and four since. Coach Vince Lombardi took over Green Bay in 1959, and built the team around quarterback Bart Starr. Lombardi perfected Green Bay’s “power sweep,” which cut through defensive lines for big gains. “It is the play we will run again, and again and again,” he insisted. From 1960 through 1967, the Packers won 82, lost 24 and tied four. They won five title games in seven years by a comically lopsided combined score of 145-53.

6. Gretzky: A Record for Holding Records

Upon retiring, Wayne Gretzky owned or shared 61 NHL records, including most goals, assists and points in a season, as well as all time, stats known as “The Big Six.” It’s crazy—you could subtract all 894 of his goals and Gretzky would still lead the NHL with 1,963 points (hockey players are awarded a point for each goal and assist). Today, 125 points often leads the league, but for Gretzky that would have been merely an average year. He led the Edmonton Oilers to four cups in five years, and starting with the 1979–1980 season he claimed nine out of 10 Hart Memorial Trophies, the league’s award for most valuable player.

MJ
Michael Jordan, famous as both an athlete and a cigar smoker, has graced the cover of Cigar Aficionado twice—once in 2005 and again in 2017.

5. Jordan and the Bulls: Two Three-Peats

Reggie Jackson once said that a sports dynasty means winning three in a row. By that reckoning, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had two; the first from 1991 to 1993, and the second from 1996 through 1998. They won three in a row both times, for six championships in eight years.

Jordan remains the standard against whom all other basketball players are compared, and he exceeds them all. He tops Bill Russell, who won more championships but scored only 14 points a game and missed 56 percent of the shots he took. His scoring average of 30.12 stands first all-time, just .05 better than Chamberlain’s 30.07. Kobe Bryant was never Jordan’s match in shooting percentage, closing a game or defense, and Jordan was a greater shooter and far greater closer than LeBron James.

In their best season, 1995–96, the Bulls went 72-10, an NBA record that lasted 20 years. Would they have won even more if Jordan hadn’t missed the two seasons between the three-peats for baseball? Could they have beaten the Lakers and Celtics of the ’80s? In their six title seasons, the Bulls posted a record of 388 wins and 104 losses, an astounding .788 percentage. In the finals no opponent made it to a seventh game.

4. The Ice Men: 24 Cups for the Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens hold 24 Stanley Cups, more than any other team in NHL history. (Second place is a mere 13.) Nine of them were won in two impressive streaks, five straight from 1956 through 1960 and four from 1976–1979. The second run impresses more, given a field of 18 teams, compared to the original six that existed through 1967. During that second run, Montreal won 13 straight series with a smothering 51-10 playoff mark. They succeeded with star power, including high-scoring winger Guy Lafleur, goalie Ken Dryden and punishing, six-foot-four, 225-pound defender Larry Robinson—all Hall of Famers.  

It began with a rumble. The Philadelphia Flyers had roughed everyone up during consecutive titles in 1974 and 1975, but Montreal finished a 12-1 playoff run by dumping Philly four-zip. “If a bully keeps bothering you in school, how do you counteract that?” Robinson asked. “We stood up to them.” In ’77 Montreal lost only one home game, posting a 60-8 mark. They drubbed Boston four straight, a second straight finals whitewash. They evicted Boston again in ’78, took the Rangers to the woodshed in 1979, and finished 16-3 in the four finals.

3. Eight Straight By Boston

The Celtics ran off 11 titles in 13 years, and an NBA record eight in a row between 1959 and 1966. Nine of the Celtics championships came in a league that had eight or nine teams (compared to 30 today), but this level of domination is one we won’t ever see again. Over the 13 years, their playoff record was 104-57 (.646). Their peerless dealmaker was Red Auerbach, a suffer-no-fools-gladly Brooklyn native who came to Boston in 1950. Boston had playmaking and scoring with future Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Ed Macauley. But rebounding was a problem. “We couldn’t get the ball,” Auerbach lamented. 

Salvation came in center Bill Russell, who had led San Francisco to consecutive NCAA titles. Boston was picking third in 1956, behind Rochester and St. Louis. Celtics owner Walter Brown promised Rochester owner Les Harrison that he would send the Ice Capades to his building for several weeks a year if Harrison stayed away from Russell, but St. Louis chose Russell with the second pick, forcing Boston to make a trade to land him. Russell was the missing piece, giving them title after title and allowing Auerbach countless occasions to light up his signature Hoyo de Monterrey cigar on the bench when victory was near.

2. UCLA Wins 10 In 12 Years

The University of California’s sustained run of college basketball excellence shines like sapphire. Between 1964 and 1975, UCLA won 10 national championships. Detractors point to a smaller tournament field of 16 teams through 1974, swelling to 32 in 1975. A single statistic rebuts their argument: UCLA’s record for those 12 tournaments was 45-2 (.957). Sixteen teams or 68 makes no difference: 45-2 will hold up, weathering the onslaught of time. 

Ten titles in 12 years would be unthinkable without John Wooden. Equal parts coach and practical philosopher, fastidious tactician and mentor, Wooden is arguably the greatest coach in any sport, collegiate or professional. The voice of his father Joshua dinned in his ears: “Never cease trying to be the best you can be.” He impressed that message on his youthful charges for 26 years. His practices were meticulously orchestrated events, with 15-minute segments penned on three-by-five note cards. “I never used the word ‘win,’ ” Wooden said. Amazingly, Wooden claimed his 14-12 1959 team was his “most successful” because they drew the maximum from limited potential. Some say he won because of his great centers, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. Reply: he won five titles with them, and five without them.

1. The Yankees: Utter Domincation in the World Series

Between 1923 and 1962, from Babe Ruth roaming right field at a new stadium to Mickey Mantle blasting bombs in his prime, the Yankees snatched 29 of 40 pennants—an astounding success rate of 73 percent—and won 20 World Series, half of all those played. They have won seven Series and 13 pennants in the 56 years since—more than any other team, but unimpressive by Yankee standards. New York’s personnel divides neatly into two distinct pantheons. Ruth and Gehrig, Mantle and DiMaggio (yes, in that order) occupy the first tier. The second tier—superior to most teams’ first—includes such greats as Berra, Ford, Jeter and Rivera. Great teams rarely last 15 years. Try finding another that can dominate for four decades.

Ruth alone has an array of mind-numbing numbers to flesh out his legend. After helping Boston to three titles in four years with 78 wins as a pitcher, Ruth, starting in 1919, set consecutive records in home runs with 29, 54, 59 and 60. Nothing rivals those achievements. In those seasons he out-homered 44 American League and National League teams by himself, and the 60 he hit in ’27 exceeded every American League team. He also has the highest slugging average of all time (.690), won a dozen home run titles in 14 years and claimed 13 slugging titles in 14 years. There is not now, never was and never will be a talent as disproportional to the rest of the field as Ruth, and no other professional team in sports comes close to the dominance of the New York Yankees.

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