Will Athletic Records Ever Stop Tumbling?

Article excerpt

IN 1919, AFTER BASEBALL DEITY Babe Ruth set a single-season record by slamming his 29th home run, his manager, Edward Barrow, declared the mark "far and away out of reach of any other player the game is likely to develop." By the mid-1920s, top big-league batters were routinely besting that total. The record Ruth set in 1927, when he belted 60 homers, did stand up for 34 years --but then Roger Maris hit 61 in '61. This season, two players, Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark McGwire of St. Louis, have made a run at Maris's milestone. Neither may succeed this year, but rest assured that someday someone will.

The Guinness Book of World Records doesn't put out a new edition every year for nothing. "The notion that records are invulnerable is foolish," says Bill James, a Kansas author widely considered the father of statistical baseball analysis. Still, some feats are more easily bettered than others. Watching Michael Jordan dominate a basketball game, it's tough to imagine what a better player might look like. To see sprinter Donovan Bailey cover 100 meters in 9.84 seconds, as he did at last year's Olympic Games in Atlanta, is to wonder just how much faster a human being could possibly run. As we head into the 21st century, it may seem that we're reaching the outer limits of human athletic potential. Can sports records really continue to fall indefinitely?

Records based on longevity certainly can. For example, baseball great Lou Gehrig's streak, playing in 2,130 consecutive games, "was one record we assumed would never be broken," says Lyle Spatz, records-committee chair of the Statistical Association of Baseball Research. Pampered modern-day players were thought to lack the grit of earlier competitors--until Baltimore's Cal Ripken played his 2,131st straight game two years ago. …