Denver Broncos quarterback and future first-ballot hall of famer Peyton Manning has 506 touchdown passes, three away from passing Brett Favre for the most in NFL history. It’s one of the most beloved records in the NFL because of what the quarterback means to the game of football.
But is it the best individual achievement in all of professional sports? I would have to say no.
It’s so tough to pick one. Some records that come to mind right away are Cal Ripken Jr.’s Major League Baseball streak of 2,362 games, Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in a single game, Barry Bonds hitting 762 home runs, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 38,387 career points, and Lance Armstrong winning seven straight Tour De France’s after beating testicular cancer.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. He cheated and took performance enhancing drugs. Yeah, but who didn’t cheat in cycling?
For as long as I can remember though, I always thought Abdul-Jabbar’s career point record was the best achievement in all of professional sports. He was as dominant as anyone was in their respective sports, and he had the most unstoppable move: the skyhook. His opponents knew it was coming, but still couldn’t defend it. He helped lead his teams to six NBA championships, and earned six Most Valuable Player awards.
It’s tough to argue against what Jabbar has done, but Stephen A. Smith, a current ESPN analyst and former journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, made his own argument. He said that, even with Barry Bonds being the current all-time home run leader, he believes Hank Aaron passing Babe Ruth’s record to become the all-time home run leader in 1974 was the greatest individual achievement in professional sports.
For Smith, what sets Aaron apart from everyone else are the circumstances that Aaron had to deal with while chasing Ruth’s record. When you look at what Aaron went through in pursuit of that record, Smith is right, Aaron’s accomplishment is far greater than any other.
In 1974, things still weren’t too far removed from the civil rights movement, and racism was a major issue. So when Aaron was closing in on Ruth’s record, some people saw it as an African-American man about to break their beloved hero’s home run record. Even to this day, there may not be a more beloved baseball player than Babe Ruth.
People were furious. They sent nasty letters and death threats to Aaron, calling him all sorts of derogatory names. They said things like, “My gun is watching your every black move.” And “You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it.”
Aaron was sent hundreds, sometimes even thousands of similar letters a day, and he visited cities where he would be verbally abused.
So when you look at the records accomplished over the past century and really look at the meaning behind them, the weight Aaron carried on his shoulders and the scrutiny he faced everyday prove that there is no greater accomplishment in the world of sports than when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record.