The Most Amazing Statistical Achievement in U.S. Sports History

Wilt Chamberlain. Joe DiMaggio. Simone Biles. Which of their athletic achievements is most impressive?

Hy Peskin / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Work in Progress newsletter.

Sign up for Derek’s newsletter here.

Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak. Simone Biles’s 25 World medals. Which of these athletic achievements is most impressive? And is any of them the most impressive accomplishment in the history of U.S. sports?

That’s the question I asked Twitter a few weeks ago. When I received several thousand (passionate, funny, surprising, and extremely angry) replies, I realized that I’d struck a chord. Everybody has their own subjective definition of amazing. But I wanted something better: an objective definition to easily compare statistics across sports and to separate the merely great from the historic. I settled on the “50 Percent Club.” That is: What American sports records are at least 50 percent greater than the relevant second-place accomplishment?

For example, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962 is legendary. But Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game in 2006 means that it would take a 121-point game to pass the 50 Percent Test in the category of points scored in a single game. So Chamberlain doesn’t make it into the club on that metric. But his greatest feat isn’t one game; it’s that he scored 60 points on 32 separate occasions. That’s not just 50 percent more than the second-most on that list (also Bryant). It’s almost 500 percent more. In fact, Chamberlain has more 60-point games than every other basketball player in NBA history combined. That makes Chamberlain a card-carrying member of the 50 Percent Club.

With that benchmark in mind, here are some of the glitziest members of my 50 Percent Club. If you think the list is imperfect or that my metric is arbitrary, you’re right. If you’re offended that I’m considering annual records alongside career marks, you have my permission to be offended. Also, fair warning that you won’t find some all-time greats here. Michael Jordan isn’t on the list, and it’s not because I think he’s a mediocre basketball player. It’s just that his scoring and titles don’t exceed other competitors by my threshold. Some exceptional athletes, like Jordan and Serena Williams, are akin to Mount Everest—the highest peak among many high peaks. What I’m looking for are Mount Kilimanjaros—heights so soaring that they make the competition look like a flat plain below them.

I’ll get to the official 50 Percent Club in a second. But first I’ll check off some famous accomplishments that don’t quite meet the threshold.

The Almost-50-Percent Club

These sports achievements are legendary and maybe impossible to repeat. But they don’t quite beat the competition by 50 percent.

  • Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive games played is a great example of the sort of record that should be cherished even though it doesn’t come close to exceeding the second-place figure by 50 percent. Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games. But without competition from the Iron Horse, Cal’s record would stand alone. The third-longest streak is Everett Scott’s; he played in 1,307 straight games from 1916 to 1925.
  • Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak in 1941 is similar to Ripken’s record—amazing, but not 50 Percent Club–worthy. The Baltimore Oriole Willie Keeler hit in 45 consecutive games in 1896 and 1897, and Pete Rose had a 44-game hit streak in 1978. DiMaggio was awfully close, though. He followed his 56-game streak with another 16-game hit streak. Erase that pesky gap game, and DiMaggio’s 72-game hit streak would have easily earned him entry.
  • Cy Young’s 512 career wins and 749 complete games are ludicrous records from a time when pitchers were engaged in general ludicrousness. As a result, his wins record, while remarkable, is just 22 percent greater than Walter Johnson’s, and his complete-games record is just 16 percent more than that of some guy named Pud Galvin. To say nobody will ever break these marks is to be offensively obvious. The most wins by a pitcher whose career started in the past century is 363, by Warren Spahn. The two active wins leaders, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, don’t even have 450 wins between them. Baseball was such a different sport around the turn of the 20th century that the pitching statistics look completely made up. To take one example: No current MLB pitcher has thrown more than three complete games since 2018. At that rate, to match Cy Young’s record, a modern ace would require approximately 250 years of peak performance. That’s a career spanning longer than the sport of baseball has even existed.
  • Bob Beamon’s record-breaking long jump at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City is one of the great sports outliers of the last century. In the 1960s, new long-jump records were typically exceeded by an inch or so. When Bob Beamon entered the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the all-time record was about 27.5 feet. He beat the existing record by more than 22 inches. The jump was famously beyond the limit of the measuring equipment available, and the judges needed several minutes to figure out what had just happened. When Beamon learned that he’d broken the record by almost two feet, he was so emotional that he collapsed and experienced what doctors described as a cataleptic seizure. (He recovered.) Beamon’s jump can’t make it to the FPC, because it’s no longer the official world record; however, it is still the Olympic record. In fact, it remains the longest-standing Summer Olympic record in modern times.
  • Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season: In the middle of the steroid era, Pedro allowed 1.74 runs per game in 2000, giving him the best adjusted-earned-runs-average mark since the 1940s. I think this might be the greatest pitching performance in major-league history, and even as a Yankees fan, I sometimes think it’s one of the most exceptional single-season baseball accomplishments of my lifetime. But it’s not technically FPC worthy. Pedro’s ERA was only 33 percent lower than the year’s No. 2, Kevin Brown. That’s amazing. But as you’ll see, some baseball statistics are just more outlandish.
  • The San Diego Chargers’ bizarre 2010 season: Responses to my question included some factoids that are just too weird to ignore. I have to share this one, although I encourage the people of San Diego to move on to the next section. In 2010, the San Diego Chargers had the NFL’s best offense, by yards gained, and the league’s best defense, by yards allowed. They did not make the playoffs. I double- and triple-checked this. I still don’t quite understand how this is possible, although one answer is that they lost a lot of close games and their special-teams play was horrific. I’m not aware of any other team in professional-sports history that was statistically the best at offense and defense all year and didn’t make the playoffs.

The 50 Percent Club: The Outer Circle

I’m not going to argue that these are the greatest athletic accomplishments in history. But they’re still amazing, and they each pass the 50 percent threshold in some way.

  • Don Hutson’s 1942 season: The Green Bay Packers wide receiver Don Hutson dominated the NFL in 1942. Hutson had more than twice as many receptions, yards, and touchdowns as the next leading receiver in each category. In fact, he had more receptions than the second, third, and fourth leading receivers in the league combined. Sure, this was 80 years ago. But I’m not immediately aware of a player who’s won his respective triple crown by doubling the totals of each person in second place.
  • Nikola Jokić’s shocking 2021 MVP: The Denver Nuggets center isn’t just one of the most versatile big men in the history of the NBA. He’s also perhaps the least likely superstar in league history. Last year, Jokić was named the MVP, after being the 41st pick in the NBA draft. That’s unheard of in basketball. No other league MVP was ever drafted lower than 15th (Steve Nash and Giannis Antetokounmpo). In other sports, superstars more commonly emerge from late picks. In the NFL, for example, Tom Brady, Roger Staubach, Shannon Sharpe, and Terrell Davis were all late-rounders. But in the NBA, Jokić’s draft-to-MVP delta doesn’t have any close comparison.
  • The 1989 San Francisco 49ers: I really wanted to get Jerry Rice, the NFL’s greatest all-time receiver, on this list. But he doesn’t have many one-year records. And although he leads in career receptions, yards, and touchdowns, he doesn’t lead by enough to meet the threshold. Here’s the best I’ve come up with: In his early prime, Rice’s team, the San Francisco 49ers, won 18 consecutive road games from 1988 to 1990. That’s exactly 50 percent more than the second-place New England Patriots, who won their 12th straight road game in 2017. In the middle of that streak, the 49ers also won the 1990 Super Bowl by the largest margin in history.
  • Rickey Henderson’s stolen-base record: The ageless Henderson has more than 50 percent more stolen bases than No. 2, Lou Brock. He also holds the records for most runs scored and unintentional walks. Henderson won only one MVP, and I don’t think his career stands up to, say, Babe Ruth’s, which we’ll get to later. But he showed an absurd combination of longevity and excellence. Consider this: Henderson set the single-season record for stolen bases—130 in 1982, when he was 23—and then played another 22 years, leading baseball in stolen bases as late as 1998, at the age of 39.
  • Shohei Ohtani’s 2021 season: Ohtani, the power hitter and pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, is sometimes called a modern Babe Ruth, given his prowess on the mound and at the plate. But his 2021 season is even more remarkable than that comparison sounds. After several years as a star pitcher, Ruth had only one season in which he pitched often and hit more than 20 home runs. That was 1919, when he started 15 games for Boston, won 9, and led the league in home runs with 29. (The next year, he was traded to the Yankees and basically became a full-time batter.) But last year, Ohtani did something Ruth never did: He hit 46 homers in a year that he struck out 156 players. No other player in MLB history had ever recorded more than 10 home runs in a season when they also had more than 100 strikeouts as a pitcher. Ohtani’s FPC bona fides are obvious: Among all pitchers in history with more than 100 strikeouts, he had at least 400 percent more home runs; and among all sluggers with 40 home runs, he must have something close to 1,000 percent more thrown strikeouts.

The 50 Percent Club: The VIP Suite

You could make a case that any of these accomplishments is the most unusual, statistically aberrant, or flat-out ridiculous U.S.-sports accomplishment of all time.

  • Barry Bonds’s early-2000s stats, especially his 688 intentional walks: Although marred by his use of steroids, Barry Bonds’s early-2000s statistics are so jaw-dropping that sometimes I’ll take a peek to get a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. In 2001, Bonds broke the single-season home-run record and then, over the next three years, somehow got better. In 2002, he led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and total bases. In 2003, he won MVP for the third straight year. By 2004, things had taken a surreal turn. Pitchers were so afraid to face Bonds that he was intentionally walked 120 times, nearly doubling the previous record (his own, 68, which he set in 2002) and shattering the non-Bonds record of 45, set by Willie McCovey in 1969. Bonds finished his career with 688 intentional walks, more than the current No. 2 (Albert Pujols, with 315) and the No. 3 (Stan Musial, with 298) combined. The Bonds fear factor was so strong by 2004 that sports journalists have written entire articles trying to identify his most incredible walks statistic. I’ll share my favorite stat, in part because it’s so hilariously complex. Since we first started tracking intentional walks in 1955, there have been about 10,000 professional baseball players. Out of millions of plays, on only 23 occasions has a batter been intentionally walked with the bases empty while the pitcher’s team was winning—an ultimate sign of respect for a hitter. Barry Bonds accounts for 12 of those 23 instances. That means he has been intentionally walked in the above scenario more than all of the other 10,000 baseball players combined since 1955.
  • Simone Biles’s 19 World Championship gold medals: The most decorated gymnast in history, Biles is particularly dominant when it comes to World Championship golds. She has 19; no other female gymnast has 10. In 2019, she won five gold medals at the World Championships in Germany, surpassing Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus to have 25 total World medals, the most of any gymnast, male or female.
  • Steph Curry’s three-point shooting: Steph Curry is the best shooter of all time. That’s obvious. But the statistics are even more lopsided than I thought. Curry has 22 career games with 10 or more three-pointers; no other player in NBA history has more than five. In fact, Curry has more games with 10 three-pointers than the next 10 top players combined. At 33, Curry is already the all-time career leader in threes. By the time he retires, the record is going to be obliterated, especially because Curry is taking more threes as he gets older. He averaged nine attempts per game in 2015, 11 in 2018, and 13 in 2021 and 2022 (so far).
  • Wilt Chamberlain’s 1960s scoring: We’ve already gone over how Chamberlain has single-handedly produced more 60-point games than all the thousands of other professional basketball players combined. But Chamberlain’s 1961–62 season, when he scored 100 points, could use more appreciation. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote, this year “is essentially written in statistical concrete never to be duplicated.” He continued: “[Chamberlain] averaged 50.4 points per game, the highest ever—and no one is close. Michael Jordan is the only player besides Chamberlain to average more than 37. Chamberlain averaged 39.5 shots per game, the highest ever—and no one is close. No one else has averaged more than 30. Elgin Baylor once averaged 29.7, Jordan and Allen Iverson each averaged 27 once … Another mark sure to stand forever is his 48.5 minutes per game average. He was never substituted out that season; he only missed eight minutes of one game after he was ejected in the fourth quarter. He reached an average of more than 48 minutes because he played seven overtime games. He was miraculously almost never in foul trouble, averaging a career-low 1.5 a game.” What keeps Chamberlain’s 1962 year from sheer immortality is that his team didn’t win the finals. Chamberlain was peaking at the same time that another basketball player was accomplishing something just as statistically outlandish, or more.
  • Bill Russell’s eight straight championships: Wilt Chamberlain’s regular-season accomplishments in the late 1950s and ’60s will forever be eclipsed by Bill Russell’s postseason accomplishments over the same period. Led by Russell, the Boston Celtics won 11 championships, including eight straight from 1959 to 1966. No other professional player or team has come anywhere close to duplicating this. Only three basketball teams—the Minneapolis Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Los Angeles Lakers—have won three consecutive championships; no one else has won four. The Yankees won five straight championships from 1949 to 1953 and the early-1950s Montreal Canadiens also won five straight in hockey. But eight straight stands alone in professional sports.
  • Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters: When I was a kid, Nolan Ryan was my favorite baseball player. He seemed to play forever, strike out everybody, and walk everybody else. Decades later, I’ve interrogated these childhood assumptions, and it looks like I had it right the first time. Yes, Nolan Ryan played forever, with a record-tying 27 seasons over four decades. Yes, he struck out everybody, with both the single-season and career strikeout records. And, yes, he walked everybody, too: Ryan holds the career high mark for walks (also for wild pitches) and is the only pitcher since 1900 to walk 200 batters twice in his career. As far as the 50 Percent Club is concerned, Nolan Ryan gets in for both the no-hitter record (he has seven; nobody else has five) and the career walks record (his all-time number is, hysterically, 52 percent higher than No. 2 Steve Carlton).
  • Tiger Woods: There are a lot of impressive Tiger Woods statistics from the late 1990s and early 2000s that are hard to assess with the 50 Percent threshold because of the way golf is scored. But one stat that clearly gains Tiger entry is that he earned 46 PGA Tour wins in his 20s, shattering Jack Nicklaus’s record of 30 wins by 50 percent. But that’s not really Tiger’s most impressive accomplishment. This is: From 1997 to 2013, Tiger was a combined 126 under par in major championships, among golfers who played at least 90 rounds. Nobody else came close. Steve Flesch is No. 2, finishing 251 strokes behind him (at 125 over par) and Phil Mickelson is third, finishing 234 strokes back (at 128 over par). Tiger Woods is the only player in modern history to win all four majors in a row and the only player to win any major by 10 or more strokes. In fact, he did that twice: in the 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open.
  • Babe Ruth’s entire 1920s: It’s hard to know what to do with Babe Ruth batting records from the 1920s, because there are so many wild accomplishments, and once you start listing them, it’s hard to stop. In two different years, he hit more home runs than any other team. That’s just stupid. You could allow him into the FPC for other reasons. You could admit him for slugging percentage: Ruth exceeded a slugging percentage of .700 nine times, while no other player has done it more than five times. Or you could give it to him for OPS+—that is, adjusted on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, which is a metric that accounts for a batter’s performance and controls for ballparks and league averages. Ruth finished with a 210 OPS+ nine times, more than double any other player. Basically, that’s a very technical way of saying nobody’s come close to dominating baseball from a hitting standpoint, year after year, like Ruth did. He also had six years with at least 135 RBIs and 135 walks, more than all other players combined, according to MLB.com. Like I said, once you start, it’s hard to stop.
  • Tom Brady’s entire postseason record: Tom Brady has played football for so long and made the playoffs and Super Bowl so many times that almost all of his postseason records are FPC-worthy. He has seven Super Bowl wins; no other quarterback has five. He’s played in a record 46 playoff games; the second-highest mark from somebody who wasn’t a teammate of Brady is Jerry Rice, at 29. He has more than twice as many playoff wins (35) as the next-best quarterback, Joe Montana (16), and almost twice as many total touchdowns too. Oh, and his famous Super Bowl comeback from being down 25 points against the Atlanta Falcons? Well, that also shatters the previous record, a 10-point deficit in Super Bowl XLIX, by more than 50 percent. But my favorite Brady factoid comes from Boston sports-radio host Alex Barth: “The NFL record for career completions is 67.8 percent. Tom Brady has made the conference championship 73.7 percent of the seasons he’s been the primary starter prior to 2022. Brady makes the conference championship at a higher rate than any QB completes passes.” Like, what? Tom Brady makes no sense.
  • Wayne Gretzky: Wayne Gretzky is the NHL’s all-time leader in goals. He is also the all-time leader in assists. He is, therefore, the all-time leader in points, which are awarded for both goals and assists. But here’s the truly mind-bending thing: Given his astonishing number of assists, if Gretzky had never scored a goal in his entire NHL career, he’d still be the NHL’s all-time leader in points! Of the 11 best seasons in hockey history by points scored, Gretzky has nine. As the ESPN reporter Seth Wickersham told me, when Gretzky set the all-time single-season points record in 1986, he broke the previous record by 41 percent. That’s … inhuman. To achieve something statistically similar in football or baseball today, a quarterback would have to throw 76 touchdowns (the record is 54) or a batter would have to hit more than 100 home runs. That’s just not going to happen. For his unbroken annual records and his unbreakable career marks, the points totals of the Great One—ironically, a Canadian!—gets my final vote for the most amazing statistical achievement in the history of American sports.