The most infamous asterisk in sports history wasn’t an asterisk. It was a sketchy statistical differentiation. As Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle — as of Sept. 10, 1961, Mantle had 53 homers to Maris’ 56 — chased Babe Ruth’s record, the spoilsport commissioner Ford Frick decreed that, to be deemed the single-season home run champ, a player would have to better Ruth’s 60 in 154 games, which once constituted a season. By ’61, baseball had adopted a 162-game schedule.
After the Yankees’ 154th game, Maris had 59. (Mantle, who sustained a hip injury, finished with 54.) No. 60 came in Game No. 158. No. 61 was struck off Tracy Stallard on the season’s final day. Big drama, right? Uh, no. Thanks in part to Frick’s party-pooping — FYI, the commish was a friend of Ruth’s family — attendance in Yankee Stadium, was 23,154, nearly 40K short of capacity.
The next year's record book bore no asterisk. It read this way:
• Most home runs, 154-game season: Babe Ruth, 60 in 1927.
• Most home runs, 162-game season: Roger Maris, 61 in 1961.
Not until 1991 did another commissioner set this right. (A season is a season, is it not?) Fay Vincent anointed Maris, who died in 1985, MLB’s record-holder for home runs in, ahem, a single season. Herein rests today’s lesson: In sports, asterisks — even imagined ones — are unwelcome things.
We mention this because sports could soon see a slew of perceived-if-not-actual asterisks. The NBA, NHL and MLS seasons have been paused for two months; none have set a restart date. The Braves were scheduled to work their 30th of 162 games Monday; they’ve logged none. We’ve seen seasons shortened by strikes/lockouts. We’ve seen a World Series scrubbed and a NHL season never begin. We’ve never seen anything like what we’ll see if sports resume in 2020. (Which isn’t a given, we stress.)
If you’ve visited an ESPN platform over the past month, you’ve seen Michael Jordan. You’ve also seen Phil Jackson, who coined the phrase “Last Dance” to commemorate his final run with the Bulls. The same Jackson gave the NBA its most notable imaginary asterisk when, after alighting in L.A. to coach Shaq and Kobe, he derided the Spurs’ 1999 NBA title for being won after a regular season that didn’t begin until Feb. 5 — five days after the Broncos beat the Falcons in the Super Bowl.
Teams played 50 games in 1999, almost 40 percent off the usual regimen of 82. The playoffs wound up half-weird. The Spurs, who finished tied with Utah for the most regular-season wins with 37, won the title. Their finals opponent was the East’s No. 8 seed.
The 27-23 Knicks upset Miami in Round 1 on Allan Houston’s floater that hit rim, backboard and then net. Round 2 brought the fourth-seeded Hawks, an unassuming team handed a clear path to the Eastern finals. Being the Hawks, they got swept. Latrell Sprewell ran wild; the Hawks barely broke a trot. They averaged 71.3 points over the final three games.
In 1999, Jordan was again retired, Scottie Pippen was a Houston Rocket and Jackson was off contemplating his navel. The rising Spurs filled the void. This didn’t stop the Zen Master from playing his mind tricks on the team he knew would be a prime challenger to his Lakers.
We move to another Hall of Fame coach — Joe Gibbs. Before he became a NASCAR team owner, he won three Super Bowls with Washington. The first two came in strike years. In 1982, teams played two games and stopped for nine weeks. The season consisted of nine games, down from 14. The playoffs added a round and doubled in size. Washington lost but one of its 13 games. That’s legit.
Washington's Super Bowl opponent was a tad odd, though. In maybe Don Shula's greatest coaching job, the Dolphins went 7-2 and won the AFC title on a sodden Orange Bowl field. The Jets had sprung road upsets over Cincinnati and Oakland; at Miami in the mud, they lost 14-0. The Dolphins' quarterback was David Woodley, the least imposing Super starter ever. Miami and Shula would reach the Super Bowl two seasons later with a different QB. His name: Dan Marino.
In 1987, the players again went on strike after two games. Being silly, the NFL chose to carry on with replacement players. Those October games counted even after the regulars returned. Washington went 3-0 in replacement games and finished 11-4; the Giants went 0-3 and finished 6-9. Washington chose Doug Williams ahead of Jay Schroeder as its playoff starter, even though Williams had started only two regular-season games, both losses. One came against the Falcons and legendary quarterback Scott Campbell on Sept. 20; it marked the first victory of Marion Campbell’s second term as head coach. Over three seasons, there would be 10 more.
The season reached its climax with Williams throwing four touchdown passes in the second quarter against Denver. He became the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Not until the 1991 season would Gibbs win a title in a non-strike year.
The 1981 baseball season was halted for seven weeks by a strike. When it resumed, four teams knew they’d be playing in October. In its infinite wisdom, MLB broke the broken year in half: There was a first-half champ and a second-half champ in each division. Thus did the teams with the best and third-best record — the Reds and the Cardinals, respectively — miss the playoffs. Cincinnati “lost” the first half, in which it played one fewer game than the Dodgers, by a half-game; St. Louis did the same in the second half vis-à-vis Montreal.
Both World Series qualifiers were first-half winners: The Dodgers went 27-26 after the resumption; the Yankees were 25-26. The Dodgers beat the Yankees in six. By then, matters were so muddled that Series MVP honors were split three ways. On opening day in 1982 in Riverfront Stadium, the defiant Reds hoisted a banner: “Baseball’s Best Record 1981.”
How many of those seasons would have played out the same way if they hadn’t been delayed/interrupted? How high is up? To borrow from Dan Jenkins’ irreverent-to-say-the-least “Semi-Tough:” “What could have happened, did.”
Besides, we around here shouldn’t worry overmuch about irregular seasons, lest someone from, say, Cleveland, note that the 1995 baseball campaign commenced on April 25, lasted 144 games and ended with a 100-win team losing the World Series to a 90-win entity. Can’t seem to recall that team’s name, though.