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Why Some Baseball Records Will Never Be Broken (And Which Ones Might)

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If there's anyone who is qualified to comment on the evolution of rules and conditions in baseball, it's John Thorn. He is a prolific writer on the history of the game and the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball. I talked to Thorn about some of the conventionally considered "unbreakable" baseball records and what makes them unbreakable—or if they even are.

Baseball's Unbreakable Records

Cy Young: 511 Career Wins, 749 Career Complete Games

Cy Young's career ended over a century ago, but his legacy lives on in the award named in his honor that celebrates the best pitcher in each league every year. He is a fitting source of aspiration as the record holder for most career wins and most career complete games in baseball history. A member of MLB's "All-Century Team," Young was an undeniably top-rate pitcher, but to achieve those specific records—and keep them out of reach from any modern ace—he had a little help from the era in which he played.

"No one will get to 511 career wins because we don’t have a four-man rotation. In fact, for much of Young’s career he was in a three-man rotation with the fourth starter being the spot starter, as the fifth starter came to be in the 1950s and ‘60s," Thorn says.

Not only did Young get more chances on the mound, but the turn of the century was also particularly pitcher-friendly. "Young pitched in the dead-ball era, which means that not only did he pitch more frequently but he was facing softer lineups. There were two or three batting positions in every club that you could coast by."

It's hard to overstate how dissimilar baseball now is from what it once was. Simple changes, such as the number of baseballs used in each game can tip the scales slightly on who has the advantage in each at bat. "Now, if a ball is fouled off at the plate it is discarded. Then, unless a ball split in half, it might go six or seven innings or perhaps even a whole game. So those batters who batted at the end of the game were facing a mushier, discolored ball."

As evidenced by his record-setting complete games, Young pitched to a decision more frequently than his modern counterparts with their risk-averse inning limits. For all these reasons, baseball will probably never again have the perfect storm of ability and conditions to challenge his records, which we can deem unbreakable.

Old Hoss Radbourn: 59 Single Season Wins

Radbourn's baseball career ended before the 20th century even began, which means that his record has held longer than any other on this list and that the game conditions were very, very different. For one thing, the season was even shorter then—just 112 games—which makes this feat that much more impressive. But wildly counteracting that is the fact that, much like in the case of Young, Radbourn had a lot more chances to get a win.

These days, cracking 20 wins on the season practically guarantees a pitcher Cy Young award contention, but consider that the most games even started by a pitcher in 2013 was 34. In 1884, when Radbourn won those record-setting 59 games, he made 73 starts. Even compared to his contemporaries on the mound, that was a notable number of starts. But Radbourn had more than just a different set of conventions on his side.

"Radburn’s pitching style was pretty much underhand and sidearm," Thorn says. "When you’re throwing underhand, which is a more natural physiological motion, you can pitch more innings."

None of this is intended to diminish Radbourn's accomplishment; with just 12 losses he also led the league in win-loss percentage that year. But it does put the record well out of modern reach, at least until another submariner comes along.

Joe DiMaggio: 56-Game Hitting Streak in 1941 (and other offensive feats)

This record is will likely remain unmatched for the foreseeable future simply as a testament to DiMaggio's place as one of the best hitters who ever played. But there is a related detail that Thorn considers even more untouchable.

In 1941, the same year that he strung together his record-setting streak, DiMaggio struck out just 13 times in 541 at-bats. He played in the 1930s and '40s, but several decades earlier, the ratio for great hitters was even more pronounced. In 1897, Hall-of-Famer Willie Keeler led the league with a .424 batting average and 239 hits. In the 564 at bats he took that year, Keeler struck out just five times.

These offensive records—DiMaggio's hitting streak, Keeler's strike out ratio, and Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average—are tied to factors that have since changed, including, as Thorn calls it, a "style factor." "There is no longer a stigma attached to striking out," he says. "The object of the game from the 1850s on was to put the ball in play, allow the fielders to have a chance and run like crazy."

These days, both the number of strikeouts and walks is way up as pitchers nibble the edge of the plate and batters practice patience to up their on-base percentage. And, accordingly, high batting averages and the frequency of balls-in-play (the sort of thing a talented player like DiMaggio needs for a 56-game hitting streak) are down.

According to Thorn, "Baseball is such a delicate mechanism that you can make the slightest adjustment in either rules or custom and practices and have a huge impact on the balance between offense and defense."

Baseball's "Unbreakable" Records (That May Be Broken)

Mariano Rivera: 652 Career Saves

People were calling Mo's save record unbreakable before the Yankees closer even retired at the end of last season, which naturally resulted in one hell of a farewell tour. He has 51 more saves than runner-up Trevor Hoffman and 174 more than third place Lee Smith, but can we really call it unbreakable less than a year after it was set?

"No," says Thorn. "My crystal ball is cloudy on this but the save is an elective statistic, like the stolen base, and it is entirely dependent on a manager’s usage."

You don't have to pitch much to get a save, you just have to pitch at the right time. A manager could choose to use a pitcher in save situations—not just to boost the reliever's number but also presumably because he thrives under pressure—and thus give him lots of opportunities to record a save without subjecting him to too many innings.

"It has come to be the pattern that almost all Major League managers reserve their best relief pitcher for the ninth inning," Thorn says. "They do not bring him in for the middle of the eighth except in dire circumstance or in September or in October. Specialization is the trend in the species, not only in sport, and it’s irresistible. So it would not surprise me if someday someone were to top Rivera’s record if we continue to use many pitchers in a ballgame."

Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer baseball has seen—so far. But it might be that he's the best closer to have the right combination of opportunities so far. With no disrespect to Sandman, this one could be broken.

Nolan Ryan: Seven Career No-Hitters

It's just seven, after all. But no-hitters are few and far between. Second-place Sandy Koufax threw four no-hitters, and no other pitcher has tossed more than three. Ryan and Koufax are both Hall of Fame pitchers but ultimately a no-hitter is, as Thorn says, "something of a freakshow stat."

Ryan's no-hitters, and even more so his record-setting career strikeouts, are a testament to what he was like as a pitcher. "He was the most feared and least hittable when he was at the top of his game," Thorn says. But there's a lot of luck involved in racking up a number of no-hitters. Thorn thinks there are equally intimidating pitchers today who could twirl their way into the record books if they can stick around long enough.

"I don’t think it’s unbreakable. You could look at today’s pitchers and say maybe Stephen Strasburg, maybe Aroldis Chapman if he transformed into a starting pitcher. There’s the Sidd Finch factor here, somebody’s gonna come along throwing 110 mph and no one is going to be able to hit him, it’ll take a while to catch up." (Finch is the fictional pitcher who was invented by George Plimpton for an April Fools Day issue of Sports Illustrated. The English orphan-turned-yogi-turned-Mets-pitcher supposedly threw 168 mph.)

Even Chapman can't match the subject of Plimpton's hoax for speed, but Thorn says athletes improve every 20 years. With pitchers throwing ever harder it will take batters some time to catch up, leaving this record vulnerable to being broken.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About The Sandlot
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

What, you haven’t seen The Sandlot? You’re killing me, Smalls.

OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get down to business. Roger Ebert got it right: The Sandlot is like the summer version of A Christmas Story. They’re not penned by the same screenwriter and they don’t share a director or even actors, but both make you feel nostalgic for a childhood you probably didn’t even have.

No matter how many times you’ve watched Squints execute his plan to get to first base with Wendy Peffercorn, there’s bound to be something you don’t know about this modern classic. On the 25th anniversary of the movie's release, here are 15 of our favorite The Sandlot secrets.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED THE BOYS OF SUMMER.

Originally called The Boys of Summer, the film's name had to be changed because there was already a famous baseball book by the same title.

2. IT WAS PARTLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL.

The movie was inspired in part by a childhood experience co-writer/director David Mickey Evans’s brother had. Some older boys wouldn’t let Evans play baseball with him. When they lost a ball over a brick wall, he thought he could get on their good side by retrieving it for them. When he hopped the wall, however, he found a giant dog named Hercules waiting for him—and he was bitten.

3. IT WAS A QUICK SHOOT.

It was shot in just 42 days.

4. THE KIDS WERE SUPPOSED TO BE MUCH YOUNGER.

Casting directors originally wanted the kids to be 9 to 10 years old, but as they began casting, "it became obvious real fast the kids were much too young," Evans told Sports Illustrated. "So I said, 'We've got to make them 12 or 13.' We knew it was the right decision instantly, because the first kid that we interviewed was Mike Vitar [who played Benny Rodriguez]."

5. THE GIANT OAK TREE THAT HOLDS THE TREEHOUSE WAS SALVAGED.

The cast of 'The Sandlot' (1993)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The production crew had been agonizing over how they were going to pull off a tree that size—"We were looking at having to buy an oak tree, and a specimen that big, if you can even find one, is hundreds of thousands of dollars," Evans told Sports Illustrated—when they happened to notice one being chopped down not far from the production offices. The 100-year-old oak was interfering with the foundation of the house it was planted next to. The man removing it agreed to give it to the crew, and Salt Lake City’s utility companies took down power and telephone lines on certain streets so the tree could be hauled safely to the empty lot where filming was taking place. It was cemented into the ground there and became an iconic part of the movie.

6. YEAH-YEAH ORIGINALLY READ FOR BERTRAM.

Marty York, the actor who played Alan “Yeah-Yeah” McClennan, originally read for Bertram. Not only did York not get the Bertram role, he wasn’t the first choice for Yeah-Yeah, either. The kid cast for Yeah-Yeah got sick just as the movie was scheduled to start filming, and York replaced him.

7. THE CHEWING TOBACCO WAS MADE OF LICORICE AND BACON BITS.

The chewing tobacco from the carnival scene was really made out of licorice and bacon bits—and that, the actors later said, combined with riding the carnival rides for so many takes, made them as sick as their fictional counterparts got. (The vomit from that scene, by the way, was a mixture of split pea soup, baked beans, oatmeal, water, and gelatin.)

8. IT WAS DANGEROUSLY HOT.

It was so hot during the daytime shoots—upwards of 110 degrees—that the actor who played Scotty Smalls, Tom Guiry, got weak from running around in the heat and fell into one of the cameramen.

9. IT WAS ALSO REALLY COLD.

On the other hand, the famous pool scene was actually freezing. The day was overcast and the water was just 56 degrees. Evans says you can actually see Squints’s teeth chattering while he’s staring longingly at Wendy Peffercorn from the pool.

10. SQUINTS WAS GIVEN A STERN REMINDER.

Speaking of the Squints scam: Evans had to give actor Chauncey Leopardi a stern reminder before the scene was shot: “You keep your tongue in your mouth, you understand?”

11. WENDY PEFFERCORN WAS BASED ON A GIRL NAMED BUNNY.

Wendy was partly based on a girl Evans remembers from his childhood—a lifeguard in a red bathing suit named Bunny.

12. THE KIDS WERE EXCITED TO MEET DARTH VADER.

The kids were super impressed that Darth Vader was on set—James Earl Jones, of course, played junkyard owner Mr. Mertle. (They were almost as taken with Marley Shelton, who played Wendy.)

13. THE CAST SNUCK INTO A SCREENING OF BASIC INSTINCT.

When the young cast wasn’t acting, they were getting into the kind of shenanigans that their Sandlot alter egos surely would have been proud of—they snuck in to see Basic Instinct.

14. THE BEAST WAS PARTLY PUPPET.

The Beast—a.k.a. Hercules, an English Mastiff—was played, in part, by a puppet. It took two people to operate. If you don’t mind ruining the movie magic, you can see the behind-the-scenes photos on Evans’s blog.

Some scenes with the Beast called for a real dog (two, actually). When Smalls and Hercules make friends at the end, they got the dog to lick his face by smearing baby food on one half of Tom Guiry’s face. "That scene where I’m looking to the side, the other half of me is just slathered in this baby goo. That dog had a field day on my face," Guiry told Time. "I’m a dog-lover though, so it didn’t really bother me.”

15. THE MOVIE WAS AT THE CENTER OF A MAJOR LAWSUIT.

The Sandlot was at the center of a lawsuit that eventually had a major impact on Hollywood. A man named Michael Polydoros sued 20th Century Fox, claiming that his former classmate, David Mickey Evans, had based the character of Michael “Squints” Palledorous on him, and that it caused him embarrassment and humiliation. A judge decided that there wasn’t enough similarity to justify the lawsuit, meaning that movie studios could continue using characters inspired in part by real-life people.

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10 of the Most Valuable Baseball Cards in the World
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STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

If baseball is America’s national pastime, then collecting baseball cards is a close second. Closets, crawl spaces, and attics across the country are full of cards from every era—from the days of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams to Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols. But not all of them are going to pay off your student loans or put you in a new house.

Baseball card values depend on many factors, like age, condition, scarcity, and the collectible market trends at the time. With all that in mind, we're taking a look at 10 of the most valuable baseball cards in the world.

1. HONUS WAGNER, 1909-1911 ATC T206 // $3.12 MILLION

If you know anything about baseball cards, it won't come as a shock that this Honus Wagner card sold for a staggering $3.12 million in 2016, besting its previous high of $2.8 million from 2007. Widely considered to be the "Holy Grail" of baseball collectibles, the card's value is forever tied to its backstory. It was originally produced by the American Tobacco Company and was included in packs of the company's cigarettes. But, for reasons that still aren't completely clear, Wagner made the company pull the card from the market, resulting in anywhere from only 25 to 200 ever being released—and more than 100 years later, the scarcity has made it a landmark in sports collectibles.

2. MICKEY MANTLE, 1952 TOPPS // $1.13 MILLION

Joining Wagner in the more-than-a-million-dollars card club is none other than Mickey Mantle. More specifically, it's his 1952 Topps Major League card that went for $1.13 million at auction in 2016. Its Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) grade, which scores a card's condition, is an astounding 8.5 out of 10, making it one of the most attractive Mantle cards out there. But even copies with lower scores have gone for significant amounts, with grades of 6 and 7 regularly going for more than $100,000. But in a few weeks this list might need updating—another 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card is up for auction in April, this time with a PSA grade of 9. Its pre-auction estimate is a mighty $3.5 million-plus.

3. BABE RUTH, 1916 SPORTING NEWS // $717,000

Babe Ruth’s Sporting News card from 1916 (his pre-Yankee days) sold for $717,000 in a 2016 auction. It was far from the only auction that featured this card of a young Bambino, though. In 2017, the same card with the same PSA grade fetched around $550,000. It's just another example of how selling at the right time and finding the right buyer can make a six-figure difference.

4. PETE ROSE/PEDRO GONZALEZ/KEN MCMULLEN/AL WEIS, 1963 TOPPS // $717,000

So how did a card like this wind up taking $717,000 at auction? It's not nearly as old as a Ruth card, yet it went for just as much money. Well, for one, it features Pete Rose on it, and anything with "The Hit King" is going to get some interest. Another reason is that it was graded a perfect 10 by the PSA, which is exceedingly rare for any card of its age. It's the only copy of this particular card ever to get that rating, and for collectors, that's a big deal. This one won't fetch nearly as much in any other condition, though, as a 9 grade might get around $70,000 at auction.

5. "SHOELESS" JOE JACKSON, 1909 AMERICAN CARAMEL // $667,149

"Shoeless" Joe Jackson was the most high-profile baseball name to be linked to the notorious Black Sox Scandal, but that hasn't hurt his worth on the collectible market. In 2016, a PSA grade 8 copy of what's considered to be Jackson's rookie card sold at auction for $667,149. In 2008, the same card with a lower grade went for $86,975, so it just goes to show that a card's condition can make all the difference.

6. NOLAN RYAN/JERRY KOOSMAN, 1968 TOPPS // $612,359

Like the Rose rookie card, this Nolan Ryan/Jerry Koosman combo piece was rated a perfect 10 and was rewarded with $612,359 at auction, far higher than it would have been otherwise. In fact, of the 8000 Ryan/Koosman rookie cards that have been submitted, it's the only one to receive a perfect score. And that pristine condition is exactly why it commanded that price—when you put a 9 grade on the same card, for example, its value goes down to around $20,000 to $30,000.

7. BABE RUTH, 1914 BALTIMORE NEWS // $575,000

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Babe wound up on this list twice. This time, the Sultan of Swat is seen as a minor league pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, well before his home run prowess was realized. In 2012, Robert Edwards Auctions sold a PSA 2 graded copy of the card for an impressive $575,000. And if you want a rare card, this is it: It's generally agreed upon that there are only around 10 in existence.

8. WILLIE MAYS, 1952 TOPPS // $478,000

In 2016, Heritage Auctions held a Sports Collectibles Auction that over three days sold $11 million of memorabilia. The single most valuable item sold was a $478,000 Willie Mays card. While not his rookie card, it was the first Topps card to feature the legendary centerfielder.

9. ROBERTO CLEMENTE, 1955 TOPPS // $478,000

All-time great Roberto Clemente, a member of the 3000-hit club and the Baseball Hall of Fame, died tragically in a plane crash en route to Nicaragua to contribute to earthquake relief in 1972. In 2012, his 1955 rookie card—graded a rare 10 by PSA—sold for $432,690. But four years later (showing that timing can be more important than grade), a 1955 Roberto Clemente card that was graded a 9 sold for $478,000 (however, the same card with a PSA grade of 8 is worth around $30,000). An interesting note about the 2012 sale is that the card was owned by former big leaguer Dmitri Young, who auctioned a large portion of his impressive collection in 2012 for $2.4 million.

10. JOE DOYLE, N.Y. NAT'L, 1909-1911 ATC T206 // $414,750

“Slow Joe” Doyle might not be the most famous player on this list, but he has one of the most notorious cards on the market. First off, this particular card is over 100 years old, so there are reported to be less than a dozen in circulation. But most importantly, there was a printing error on the card, listing Doyle as playing for New York's National League team, rather than the correct American League team (he was a member of the New York Highlanders, which would eventually become the Yankees; it’s thought the confusion was due to Larry Doyle being on New York’s National League team). The error was quickly fixed, so a majority of them hit the market with the correct wording. The card has come to auction only a few times in recent years, bringing in anywhere from $64,099 to a staggering $414,750. Not bad for a pitcher with a career record of 22-21.

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