The Rarest Feats in Sports

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Podcast Transcript

In the world of sports, some things take place all the time. You will see some of the same things happen in every game or match.

However, there are some things that almost never occur. Things that are so rare and unexpected that if you find yourself as a spectator to such an event, you can consider yourself lucky.

Some of these events are so rare they might only happen once a decade or even once a century.

Learn more about the rarest feats in sports on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In discussing rare feats in sports, I’m not going to be talking about things that take a season or a career to accomplish. Every sport has someone who has achieved a high level of success after an entire career. 

What I’m going to be talking about are highly improbable events. Events that require not just luck but oftentimes the right circumstances to present themselves for such an event even to take place. 

Not all sporting events lend themselves to these sorts of rare events. For example, in track and field, there isn’t a lot of room for unexpected events. On rare occasions, records can be broken, and I’ve talked about those in a previous episode, but they are just cases of the same thing done better. 

With that, I’ll start with a sport that doesn’t usually lend itself to rare events, tennis. 

There are only a limited number of outcomes in tennis, so most matches take place within those parameters. However, there is one element in tennis that has quite a bit of variability: tie-breakers. 

For the longest time, Wimbledon used a system known as advantage set rules to break ties. That meant that a player had to win the final set by two points if it was tied. 

Winning by two points did have the potential to extend the length of a game, but usually not by any great amount. You’d usually be talking about 15 minutes, maybe half an hour.

However, in the first round of the 2010 men’s single’s tournament at Wimbledon, a match took place that was unlike any in tennis history. 

The 23rd seed, American John Isner, faced off against Nicolas Mahut, an outstanding doubles player from France. 

The match was very close throughout. Isner won the first set 6-4. Mahut won the second set 6-3. He then won the third set 7-6, and then Isner won the fourth set 7-6. 

The match, at this point, had gone on long enough that they had to call it due to darkness and resume it the next day. 

In the fifth and deciding match, the score was tied 6-6, and the advantage rules kicked in. A player would have to win two games in a row to win the set and the match. 

The problem was neither player could do it. They kept playing and playing, each man trading off games with the other, neither able to win two in a row. 

They played the entire day until the match had to be called again due to darkness. The score of the fifth set at the end of day two was 59-59. 

This otherwise unremarkable first-round match was now the talk of Wimbledon. Everyone’s attention was on it. 

On day three, they kept trading off games again. They played for an additional 67 minutes until Isner finally was able to put two games in a row together, winning the final set 70-68.

The match lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes over the course of three days. It demolished every previous tennis record in terms of length and number of games by a wide margin. 

The All England Tennis Club gave both players special recognition, and there is a plaque commemorating the game on the grounds today.

In the world of bowling, you can achieve perfection in the form of a perfect game. In a perfect game, you roll all strikes and get a score of 300.

A perfect game is not common, but it also isn’t incredibly rare. I had a friend in high school who rolled a perfect game. 

However, most bowling matches are conducted in a series of three games. What is truly difficult is to roll three perfect games in a row for a 900 series. A 900 series would represent 36 consecutive strikes.

In the case of bowling, we aren’t just looking at the professionals but every single sanctioned amateur league at every bowling alley. This is an incredible amount of bowling, amounting to tens of millions of series bowled by millions of bowlers over time.

In all of that bowling, there have only been 40 instances of a bowler achieving a 900 series. Joe Scarborough is the only bowler in the history of the Professional Bowlers Association who has ever bowled a 900 series, having done it in 2013.

In the world of golf, you might be thinking that the rarest accomplishment is a hole-in-one. Holes in one are pretty rare. However, they will be achieved regularly by amateurs at local golf courses. 

There is something that is much more rare than a simple hold in one.

Golfers are scored based on how well they did vs. the par value for a hole. If you are one stroke under par, it is called a birdie. If you are two strokes under par, it is called an eagle. 

Most holes-in-one will be in a par three hole and would usually be an eagle. 

If you are three strokes under par, then it is considered an albatross or sometimes a double eagle. To do it, you have to get a hole-in-one on a par four or get two strokes on a par five. 

Albatrosses are far rarer than holes in one. In the entire history of all four major tournaments in golf going back over a century, of all the holes played by all rounds by all the golfers, there have only been 18 albatrosses. 

But the albatross is not the rarest score in golf. There is one better. If you are four under par for a single hole, it is called a condor. 

A condor can only happen on a hole that is par five or par six, and there aren’t many of those. 

Only six times in the history of golf, and I’m talking about all golf, not just professional golf, has anyone gotten a condor. 

In five of the six cases, it was a hole-in-one on a par five, which is extremely difficult to do. It usually involves either a very unusual hole shaped like a horseshoe or conditions that are very dry, which cause the ball to roll a long distance. 

The most recent condor was by Kevin Pon on the monster 667-yard par 6, 18th hole at Lake Chabot Golf Course in Oakland, California, in 2020.

In the world of association football, aka soccer, it is very common to have low-scoring matches. If a single individual manages to score three goals in a game, it is a noteworthy achievement. 

However, it is possible to score even more goals. One of the rarest achievements is known as the quintuple. Given how many different levels there are to competitive soccer, it is possible to have enormous variability in the quality of teams, so a quintuple is much more common at lower levels.

However, at the highest level of club competition, in UEFA leagues in Europe or Copa Libertadores competitions in South America, quintuples have occurred.

There have been nine quintuples recorded since 1963, with the most goals in a game being six.  The most famous quintuple was probably Lionel Messi’s against Bayer Leverkusen in 2012 in the Champions League. 

In the history of the English Premier League, there have only been five quintuples in history.

In international cricket, there are rare feats for both bowlers and batters. 

For bowlers, the rarest achievement is probably getting a hat trick. The term hat trick actually comes from cricket, and it is when a bowler gets three consecutive wickets or out with three consecutive deliveries.  

In the history of international test cricket, which goes back almost 150 years, there have only been 46 recorded hat tricks and 50 in one-day international competitions. 

Four consecutive wickets on four balls have never occurred in test cricket and have only occurred once in one-day cricket. 

Only twice, in at any level of competition, has anyone gotten six batters out in six consecutive deliveries. The most recent occurred on March 22, 2023, by Matt Rowe of Palmerston North Boys’ High School in New Zealand.

For cricket batters, the ultra-rare achievement would be scoring seven runs in a single ball. This requires a combination of both a well-hit ball and ineptitude by the fielders. 

Only nine times in the history of cricket has a batter gotten seven or more runs on a single ball.

The late Andrew Symonds of Australia scored eight runs on a single ball in a match against New Zealand in 2008.

In American football, one of the odd things about the game is that you can theoretically have any final score, but you never see a team with a final score of one point

However, technically, you can score a single point. In the NFL, if a team scores a safety on an extra-point attempt, then a team can be awarded a single point. As of this recording, a one-point safety has never occurred in the NFL. 

There is something that has occurred which is almost as rare. One of the vestigial rules in the NFL has to do with dropkicks. Drop kicks were a bigger part of the game in the early days of American football when the ball was similar to a rugby ball.

A drop kick is when you kick the ball after it bounces off the ground. When the ball became longer and more pointed, it made drop kicking very difficult to do but not impossible. 

In the last 82 years, there has only been one successful drop-kick in the NFL, which scored a point. 

Doug Flutie, the 43-year-old backup quarterback for the New England Patriots, successfully did a drop kick for an extra point in 2006. It was his last NFL game, and his head coach Bill Belichick let him do it to make his last game memorable. 

In basketball, a triple-double is when a player gets double digits in three different statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, or blocked shots. 

A triple-double is pretty uncommon but not unheard of. Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robinson managed to average a triple-double for an entire season. 

Much rarer than a triple-double is a quadruple-double. A quadruple-double has only been done four times in NBA history, the last time being done by David Robinson in 1994. 

A quintuple-double has only been recorded three times at any level of basketball, all three of which were in girls’ high school games. 

However, there may have been a quintuple double in the NBA. On March 18, 1968, Wilt Chamberlain supposedly had 53 points, 32 rebounds, 14 assists, 24 blocks, and 11 steals in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

I say supposedly because steals and blocked shots weren’t formally kept as a statistic until 1974. However, Harvey Pollack, who is considered the father of basketball statistics, was in attendance and recorded it. 

The sport with unquestionably the largest number of odd and rare events is baseball. 

Several feats in baseball are extremely rare. One of the best-known rare events is throwing a perfect game. 

In a perfect game, a pitcher has to retire every batter without anyone reaching base. No hits, no walks, no hit batters, and no errors. 

In the history of major league baseball, there has only been 24 perfect games. In 2012 there were three perfect games, and there have been stretches of over three decades without a perfect game. 

In 1959, Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates threw 12 perfect innings, the most ever, only to lose the perfect game in the 13th inning on an error.

As rare as a perfect game is, it isn’t the rarest accomplishment. 

Unassisted triple plays are even more rare. Triple plays are pretty rare by themselves. On average, there are about five triple plays every year in major league baseball out of an average of 43,740 half innings that take place every year.

However, on rare occasions, when conditions are perfect, a single player can record all three outs. 

It usually occurs when there is a runner on first and second base with no outs. The second basemen or shortstop will catch the ball in the air, recording the first out. They will then tag second base before the runner on second can get back, recording the second out. They will then tag the runner coming from first for the third out.

It has only happened 15 times in history. It occurred six times in the 1920s and five times in the 2000s. There was only one unassisted triple play between 1927 and 1992. 

However, there is something even more rare than an unassisted triple play. Something so rare it has only happened once. Two grand slam home runs in a single inning. 

It is very uncommon for any player to even bat twice in a single inning. Your team has to be doing well for that to happen.

Of all the times someone has come to the plate twice in a single inning, only 58 times in history has someone hit two home runs in a single inning. 

To have the bases loaded for a batter twice in a single inning is astonishingly rare. The vast majority of baseball players will even encounter that situation during their entire career. 

On April 23, 1999, Fernando Tatis encountered that very situation in the third inning of a game against the Los Angele Dodgers. In both opportunities, he hit a grand slam, putting a total of eight runs on the board in two swings of his bat in one inning. 

The thing with all the feats I’ve listed in this episode is that they were totally unpredictable. You couldn’t have known that they were going to happen if you were a spectator.

That is one of the great things about sports. You never know if you are going to be a witness to history.