The 17 most important records in sports, from DiMaggio to MJ

Usain Bolt, owner of the fastest 100-meter dash.

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With the Golden State Warriors heavy favorites to break the NBA’s single-season wins record on Wednesday night, we got to wondering whether that mark, held by the famed 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team, was one of the most important in sports. 

We’re not talking about the greatest records (sorry Cy Young and your 511 wins) or the most unbreakable (ditto), but the ones that sports fans hold up the highest and treat as the dearest — the ones that, if broken, would cause the biggest stir. Of course, unbreakable records and most important records don’t have to be mutually exclusive, as you’ll soon see. So here’s our ranking of the most important records in sports.

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1. MLB: Longest hitting streak: Joe DiMaggio, 56 games

It becomes a national news story when players get halfway to Joltin’ Joe, which doesn’t happen often. Only six times in the past 30 years has any player gone past 30 and only Pete Rose has come within 15 since DiMaggio set the mark in 1941. This is the lone streak on the list that will get mass, national attention if it’s ever broken.

2. Track: 100-meter dash: Usain Bolt, 9.58

Even in a world in which track is unfortunately marginalized in the United States, the "world’s fastest man" designation still holds sway. It’s been Bolt’s record for eight years and his 9.58 has been atop the list for seven. Since 1983, the record hadn’t gone four years without being broken. Before that, however, Jim Hines’ 9.95, run in the thin air of Mexico City in 1968, had been on the books for 25 years. Bolt’s mark will be closer to that than to the recent norm.

(David Cannon/ALLSPORT)

3. Golf: Most Masters titles: Jack Nicklaus, 6

Green jackets > major titles? Look, you won’t hear a vigorous argument from me if you say it’s the other way around, but given the magic that is Augusta and how the world has bought into the self-mythology of the place, I think it’d be a bigger deal if someone were to beat Jack with seven Masters titles rather than 19 total majors in all. The reason for that? Golf fans care about every tournament, but even they aren’t fully sold on the PGA Championship. And casual sports fans are enamored of only two: the Masters and U.S. Open. So if, say, Jordan Spieth, were to win No. 19 at the 2035 PGA Championship, I just can’t see the hype being bigger than if he won a seventh Masters. Man, just think of how many times they’ll show that shot from Sunday if he ever gets close.

4. NBA: Most points in a game: Wilt Chamberlain, 100

The general rule: Career records (or ones that take an extended time to set) are always more important than those set in a single night. So, while Wilt’s 100 is hallowed in all sports circles, give me six green jackets any day. But 100? You can’t deny the awesomeness of that. Oh, and mark it down, dude: If the Warriors roll through the Spurs and Cavs in their (probable) playoff series, there will be a crisis of confidence in Golden State. How do you follow up the greatest season ever? How do you get up for next season, especially after a grueling summer that should see some of the team’s players go to Rio to win Olympic gold? Here’s how: Pick a night against the Lakers and feed Steph Curry so that he can hit triple digits and break the unbreakable mark. I’m not saying he will, I’m just saying he should try.

(AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

5. Tennis: Most majors: Roger Federer, 17

Sorry, Serena; this is in reference to the men’s game and the men’s game only. There are two reasons for this: 1) We’re in the golden age of the sport, with Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic all active and all going down in the annals of the all-time greats. 2) Fairly or not, the perception is that Serena’s competition wasn’t up to snuff. Chrissie had Martina. Steffi had Monica. Serena had … who? (I don’t agree with this — she had Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati and Venus — and part of the reason she had no rival is that she dispatched all comers, but it’s still the prevailing thought.) 

6. MLB: Consecutive games played: Cal Ripken, 2,632

It’s one of those numbers you know by heart, like 56, .406 or 0 (the amount of Cubs titles in the last century). No one is ever going to come within half of this again, and the number still will be burned into the mind of any baseball fan.

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7. Olympics: Most gold medals: Michael Phelps, 18

If Bolt triples again in Rio (100m, 200m 4x100m), he’ll have nine gold medals, tying for the second most in history, and putting him halfway to Phelps. Yes, Phelps has twice as many gold medals as any athlete in history. Of course, Phelps has the advantage of swimming more events than Bolt runs or almost any athlete competes in, but that’s too often used as a "well, anyone could do that" excuse, even though every swimmer has had the opportunity and no one has come close. Katie Ledecky, America’s biggest female swimming star, theoretically could go for five gold medals in Rio (six if she gets a burst of sprint speed and tries the 100). Even if she were to pull that unlikely sweep (she’s guaranteed the 400 and 800; everything else is a toss-up), she’d have to keep sweeping her events until the 2024 Olympics to pass Phelps.

8. NBA: Single-season wins: Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors, 72 

It’s a big deal and not just because we’re possibly hours away from seeing the mark broken. That 72-10 mark was the go-to benchmark stat from those famous Bulls teams. It represented their basketball immortality, both because they were the first to ever hit 70 (if a bunch of teams had 75 wins and the Bulls had gotten 79, it wouldn’t be as cool) and because of the round 10 in the loss column. Throw a single-digit number in there and you’ve hit video-game territory.

(Paul Kitagaki Jr/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

9. MLB: Career home runs: Barry Bonds, 762

I don’t care how tainted the record is, it was still once the most important number in all of sports. If someone, presumably clean, were to come and break it, the attention would be enormous. Also, we can’t keep acting like Bonds didn’t hit all those homers, the same way it’s silly to convince yourself Lance Armstrong didn’t win all those Tour de Frances or that taking down banners at Final Four schools erases the memory of those teams ever being there.

10. NBA: Post-1980s titles (same core team): Chicago Bulls, 6

It’s our list and we’ll make arbitrary cutoff dates if we want to. The Red Auerbach Celtics won a whole bunch of titles and even though I’ve read multiple books and articles on the tremendous coach and fascinating man, I couldn’t guess his title number for certain. (Nine was my guess. Turns out it’s 11, but nine were with Auerbach as coach so I’m giving myself partial credit. Bill Russell won the other two.) That number, unlike UCLA’s college count, isn’t really revered. The measure by which all players are now compared is Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen’s six titles with the 1990s Chicago Bulls. The stat is solely star-driven (sorry, Robert Horry) and though it’s probably more impressive to do it in the same city, it’s fine if someone were to do it in multiple places. (Remember that when LeBron wins not four, not five, not six, not seven, but maybe just those two titles and possibly one more.) What’s crazy is that Tim Duncan is one title away from tying MJ but one seems to care all that much, probably because no one ever really seems to care what Duncan does until the Spurs get to the Finals and you’re all, "Oh right, they’re good." Given that Gregg Popovich seems to be feinting in his chess match with Steve Kerr right now, this might become a not-so-moot issue in two months.

(David Madison/Getty Images)

11. NFL: Single-season rushing yards: Eric Dickerson, 2,105

Five times in the past 20 years players have taken dead aim at Dickerson’s 1984 record and five times they’ve come within 100 yards but ultimately fallen short. Adrian Peterson got the closest, with 2,097 back in 2012, the year that will go down as the apex of the career of the Vikings great. Despite the prolonged charge to break the mark, this record has all the makings of one that will fall — even in today’s multi-back NFL.

12. NFL: MVPs: Peyton Manning, 5

Which team has won the most Super Bowls? If you got the right answer, it’s either because you’re a fan of this team, a fan of the next team on the list, recently saw the standings or guessed correctly. (It’s Pittsburgh, with six.) It is NOT because this is a piece of knowledge that’s easily accessible, like some of the other numbers on this list. It’s odd; you’d think Pittsburgh’s six would be a famous mark, but it’s not, nor is the record for which team has made the most Super Bowls. It’s this way for a lot of football records. The game is ever-changing, so comparing over eras is a fruitless endeavor. All you can do is say Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas were great, but you can’t compare them to Peterson or Peyton. The best way to cross era is the MVP award and Peyton’s five are the standard bearer, for now.

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13. MLB: Career no-hitters: Nolan Ryan, 7

Another one that’s great but probably unreachable. Second place in this category is Sandy Koufax, who threw four. Of active players, there are five pitchers with two (four pitchers, if you think calling Homer Bailey "active" is too much of a stretch). But hey, if Max Scherzer keeps pitching two no-nos a year like he did in 2015, he’ll pass Ryan in 2018.

14. Tennis: Most Wimbledon titles: Martina Navratilova, 9

Why Wimbledon? For the same reason Jack’s Masters make the list. Wimbledon is the most important tournament in tennis and Martina’s dominance there is unlikely to be broken. (Serena Williams has six right now. There’s an outside chance she reaches nine but I can’t imagine her getting four more to break Martina’s record.) The mark Serena is currently pursuing — Steffi Graf’s 22 Grand Slams — is great, but problematic. It’s the record we all look to as the pinnacle of women’s tennis, but Margaret Court actually won 24, a number that’s mostly ignored because half of those wins came before professionals could play. 

15. MLB: Modern single-season batting average: Ted Williams, .406 

Though Teddy Ballgame’s .406 technically happened in the pre-war era (he did it in the 1941 season, when fighting was going on abroad, but the U.S. was still months from getting involved), he’s the only man since 1931 to hit .400. Unlike the other records, simply being close to this would be good enough. The real quest is .400, not .406. But Williams’ number is still the baseball zenith, even in an era that’s devalued batting average. 

Wilt Chamberlain

16. NBA: Most consecutive wins: Los Angeles Lakers, 33

It’s been around for 44 years for a reason, but the record has seemed so tantalizingly close for some teams (such as Golden State this year) that the 33 is beginning to hold more importance as it’s realized how amazing it really is.

17. Track: Long-jump: Mike Powell, 8.95 meters

The mark was set in 1968 (in that aforementioned thin Mexican air) by Bob Beamon, who shattered the previous record by so much it created its own adjective: Beamonesque. (He beat it by almost two feet.) Then, while all eyes had been on Carl Lewis throughout the 1980s as he attempted to break Beamon’s mark, Powell came out of nowhere to nip Beamon by two inches at the 1991 world championships. In an odd turn for a sports world that sees its athletes get bigger, stronger and faster, no one has come close to Powell since. One day? Maybe?

(Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)