When I was ten, I became a baseball fanatic. I listened to every Giants game on the radio, with Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons calling the action. I read box scores as if they held the secrets of the universe, waiting for me to decipher them. I memorized batting averages, league standings, and other numbers that changed every day during the season.
There were also numbers that didn't change. They were sacred, immutable and eternal (or so it seemed to me when I was ten). No one would ever hit more than the 60 home runs that Babe Ruth hit in 1927. Hack Wilson drove in 190 runs for the Cubs in 1930; I knew nothing else about Hack Wilson except that number. Ty Cobb stole an impossible 96 bases for the Detroit Tigers in 1915.
Surely those numbers were etched in the clouds, to stand forever. When I was a kid, 511 was another of those magic numbers. It was the number of career home runs hit by Mel Ott, the most in National League history. It wasn't as many as Ruth's 714, but it stood as the fourth best of all time, way back then.
Many hitters have surpassed Ott's 511 since then, but the number still brings me back to those days. I'm sitting in my room, sorting my baseball cards and listening as Russ Hodges calls the Giants game on my transistor radio. "Bye bye, baby," he shouts, as Willie Mays hits another one out, bringing him closer to Ott's record.
I was back there tonight, back in that ancient bedroom with the giant box of bubble gum cards, as I watched Barry Bonds, the current Giant star, hit his 511th home run in a game in Atlanta. It gave me a special thrill to see that magic number from my childhood duplicated. Now 511 homers ties him with Ott for fifteenth on the all-time list. That number can never mean quite as much as it did when I was ten, but it's not an association I can easily let go of.
Bonds will hit many more homers. His next one will tie him with Ernie Banks and Eddie Matthews for thirteenth place. By the end of this season he could be in the top ten.
And those other mystical numbers I conjured out of my ten-year-old memory? They've all been exceeded, too. In 1961, Roger Maris hit 61 homers, one more than Ruth. In 1962, Maury Wills stole 104 bases, erasing Cobb's record. Even those marks have been surpassed by now.
And some time in the last few years, someone checked the old box scores and found that Hack Wilson had one more run batted in than he was credited with in 1930. The memorable 190 became the somehow less remarkable 191. When I heard about this, it made my whole youth a lie. It was as if nothing I knew for certain could be relied on, as if truth were conditional and impermanent.
Yes, I cling to the naïveté of my childhood passions. The world has changed so much since then. It's a colder, darker place, and a ten-year-old can't (or shouldn't) walk home alone after dark from his friend's house several blocks away. But the numbers on the backs of baseball cards still tell you a history that can't be revised by shifting political winds. There's no moral ambiguity in a box score. It's the last safe haven.