Throne of Games (Most Played, Specifically)

I was trawling for some stats on hockey-reference (whence most of the hockey facts in this post) the other day and ran into something unexpected: Bill Guerin’s 2000-01 season. Specifically, Guerin led the league with 85 games played. Which wouldn’t have seemed so odd, except for the fact that the season is 82 games long.

How to explain this? It turns out there are two unusual things happening here. Perhaps obviously, Guerin was traded midseason, and the receiving team had games in hand on the trading team. Thus, Guerin finished with three games more than the “max” possible.

Now, is this the most anyone’s racked up? Like all good questions, the answer to that is “it depends.” Two players—Bob Kudelski in 93-94 and Jimmy Carson in 92-93—played 86 games, but those were during the short span of the 1990s when each team played 84 games in a season, so while they played more games than Guerin, Guerin played in more games relative to his team. (A couple of other players have played 84 since the switch to 82 games, among them everyone’s favorite Vogue intern, Sean Avery.)

What about going back farther? The season was 80 games from 1974–75 to 1991–92, and one player in that time managed to rack up 83: the unknown-to-me Brad Marsh, in 1981-82, who tops Guerin at least on a percentage level. Going back to the 76- and 78-game era from 1968-74, we find someone else who tops Guerin and Marsh, specifically Ross Lonsberry, who racked up 82 games (4 over the team maximum) with the Kings and Flyers in 1971–72. (Note that Lonsberry and Marsh don’t have game logs listed at hockey-reference, so I can’t verify if there was any particularly funny business going on.) I couldn’t find anybody who did that during the 70 game seasons of the Original Six era, and given how silly this investigation is to begin with, I’m content to leave it at that.

What if we go to other sports? This would be tricky in football, and I expect it would require being traded on a bye week. Indeed, nobody has played more than the max games at least since the league went to a 14 game schedule according to the results at pro-football-reference.

In baseball, it certainly seems possible to get over the max, but actually clearing this out of the data is tricky for the following two reasons:

  • Tiebreaker games are counted as regular season games. Maury Wills holds the raw record for most games played with 165 after playing in a three game playoff for the Dodgers in 1962.
  • Ties that were replayed. I started running into this a lot in some of the older data: games would be called after a certain number of innings with the score tied due to darkness or rain or some unexplained reason, and the stats would be counted, but the game wouldn’t count in the standings. Baseball is weird like that, and no matter how frustrating this can be as a researcher, it was one of the things that attracted me to the sport in the first place.

So, those are my excuses if you find any errors in what I’m about to present; I used FanGraphs and baseball-reference to spot candidates. I believe there’s only been a few cases of baseball players playing more than the scheduled number of games when none of the games fell into those two problem categories mentioned above. The most recent is Todd Zeile, who, while he didn’t play in a tied game, nevertheless benefited from one. In 1996, he was traded from the Phillies to the Orioles after the O’s had stumbled into a tie, thus giving him 163 games played, though they all counted.

Possibly more impressive is Willie Montanez, who played with the Giants and Braves in 1976. He racked up 163 games with no ties, but arguably more impressive is that, unlike Zeile, Montanez missed several opportunities to take it even farther. He missed one game before being traded, then one game during the trade, and then two games after he was traded. (He was only able to make it to 1963 because the Braves had several games in hand on the Giants at the time of the trade.)

The only other player to achieve this feat in the 162 game era is Frank Taveras, who in 1979 played in 164 games; however, one of those was a tie, meaning that according to my twisted system he only gets credit for 163. He, like Montanez, missed an opportunity, as he had one game off after getting traded.

Those are the only three in the 162-game era. While I don’t want to bother looking in-depth at every year of the 154-game era due to the volume of cases to filter, one particular player stands out. Ralph Kiner managed to put up 158 games with only one tie in 1953, making him by my count the only baseball player to play three meaningful games more than his team did in baseball since 1901.

Now, I’ve sort of buried the lede here, because it turns out that the NBA has the real winners in this category. This isn’t surprising, as the greater number of days off between games means it’s easier for teams to get out of whack and it’s more likely than one player will play in every game. Thus, a whole host of players have played more than 82 games, led by Walt Bellamy, who put up 88 in 1968-69. While one player got to 87 since, and a few more to 86 and 85, Bellamy stands alone atop the leaderboard in this particular category. (That fact made it into at least one of his obituaries.)

Since Bellamy is the only person I’ve run across to get 6 extra games in a season and nobody from any of the other sports managed even 5, I’m inclined to say that he’s the modern, cross-sport holder of this nearly meaningless record for most games played adjusted for season length.

Ending on a tangent: one of the things I like about sports records in general, and the sillier ones in particular, is trying to figure out when they are likely to fall. For instance, Cy Young won 511 games playing a sport so different from contemporary baseball that, barring a massive structural change, nobody can come within 100 games of that record. On the other hand, with strikeouts and tolerance for strikeouts at an all-time high, several hitter-side strikeout records are in serious danger (and have been broken repeatedly over the last 15 years).

This one seems a little harder to predict, because there are factors pointed in different directions. On the one hand, players are theoretically in better shape than ever, meaning that they are more likely to be able to make it through the season, and being able to play every game is a basic prerequisite for playing more than every game. On the other, the sports are a lot more organized, which would intuitively seem to decrease the ease of moving to a team with meaningful games in hand on one’s prior employer. Anecdotally, I would also guess that teams are less likely to let players play through a minor injury (hurting the chances). The real wild card is the frequency of in-season trades—I honestly have no rigorous idea of which direction that’s trending.

So, do I think someone can take Bellamy’s throne? I think it’s unlikely, due to the organizational factors laid out above, but I’ll still hold out hope that someone can do it—or at least, finding new players to join the bizarre fraternity of men playing more games than their teams.

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