Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Things that are overrated: Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak

Okay, first off, I want to be clear that I'm not just posting this because I hate the yankees and want to rip on some "treasured" yank history. I'm a baseball fan before yankee-hater. Much of my loathing of the yanks has to do with the George Steinbrenner era; I don't hold nearly the same feelings toward the old-school yanks.

I just feel like Joe D's hit streak -- though certainly amazing -- gets a bit too much credit from much of the baseball world.

In 1941, two things happened that haven't happened since in Major League Baseball. One was Joe D's hitting streak; the second is that Ted Williams batted .406, becoming the last player to hit .400 in a season. Joe D won the American League MVP, and the yankees went on to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 4 games to 1 in the World Series. Williams' Red Sox finished 84-70, a distant 15 games behind the 101-53 yanks.

"I was a war hero. I won MVP awards, World Series titles
and still found time to bang Marilyn Monroe.
your life?"

The closest anyone has come to matching Joe D's streak is Pete Rose, who had a 44-game streak in 1978. (Willie Keeler also had a 44-game streak, but that was in 1897, and most pre-1900 records are not used now.) That's 12 games away from Joe D. A 12-game hitting streak on its own is a notable effort for most players, so that just reinforces how unique an achievement Joe's streak was.

I point these things out to make clear that I truly respect The Streak, and I agree that it stands head and shoulders above all else in its category. What I have a problem with is the amount of reverence for hitting streaks in general and, thus, the stature accorded to DiMaggio's in particular.

If you went 1 for 5 for 60 games, you'd still just have a .200 average. Granted, Joe D went 91 for 223 over the course of his streak -- an average of .408, which is remarkable. But a hitting streak only counts hits, not whether those hits mattered. But this is yet another plus in Joe's column -- during his streak, he carried the yanks from a mediocre season into an eventual 1st-place team. His hits clearly led to wins, which is a huge factor. So for even one more reason, this streak is amazing.

It is clearly hard to argue against The Streak. And I really don't mean to. I just feel that it is held up alongside Roger Maris's 61 home runs (which I still think is the real record -- Bonds, Sosa and McGwire can go to Hell) and Nolan Ryan's 7 no-hitters, two records which I feel deserve much more honor due to factors a hitting streak -- even a 56-game one -- cannot approach. Maris's 61 home runs took 162 games; Ryan's 7 no-hitters took 20 years. The Streak lasted from May 15 to July 16, two whole months during the first half of the season.

Let's contrast Joe's numbers during The Streak with, say, the other guy who had a good year in 1941, Ted Williams. During that two-month span, Joe D hit .408 with 56 runs scored, 15 homers and 55 RBI's. Extend those kind of numbers over a 154-game season (the length at the time), and he would have a staggering year: batting .408, and (approximately) 150 runs, 42 homers and 145 RBI's. But Joe D could not, of course, keep up that high a level of production throughout the season. He finished with a .357 average, 122 runs scored, 30 homers and 125 RBI's -- an inarguably tremendous season.

"I was also a war hero. And by the way, I was also the greatest hitter
of all time and I caught 400-pound marlins off Key West in my
spare time.
What have
you ever done?"

Ted Williams, on the other hand, finished 1941 with a .406 average, 135 runs scored, 37 homers, and 120 RBIs. Strictly numbers-wise, this is a better season. Obviously, statistics don't tell the whole story, and numbers alone do not determine who wins or loses. But in baseball, numbers are accorded far more weight than in other sports. Hence, The Streak's significance.

During those 56 games, DiMaggio hit .408. During the entire 154-game season, Williams hit .406, an average most closely approached since by George Brett's .390 in 1980. That's a .16 point difference, which basically means that even if Brett had hit .390 in 1941, he would've finished a distant second. The simple fact that no one has come close to matching Williams's season-long average necessitates the comparison to The Streak, as no one has since come close to that either.

My central point is this: the Yankee Clipper batted .408 for 56 games (and a still-excellent .320 the rest of the time); the Splendid Splinter just about matched that over a full season. (To add to that, Williams entered the final day of the 1941 season [technically] batting .400. His manager offered him the choice to either sit or play. Williams insisted on playing, knowing that his average was actually .39955, saying, "If I had 10,000 at-bats, it wouldn't be .400." During the double-header which ended the Red Sox's season, Williams went a combined 6 for 8, raising his average to an official .406.) He ended the season leading the AL in home runs, runs scored, walks (147), slugging percentage (.735) and on-base percentage (.551). Williams showed a lot of well-earned self-confidence playing on that day, and his final numbers reflect it.

I simply say that what Joe D did for 56 games, Teddy Baseball did for 154. Both of their achievements are notable, but DiMaggio's seems to get much higher acclaim. Again, I don't mean to denigrate his accomplishment; I just don't see why it sits so high on the all-time list. This was not ground-breaking; players don't aim for hitting streaks. If anything, hitting streaks serve as more of a distraction, a media angle, nowadays than as some sort of barometer of a player's role on his team. Hitting streaks of any great length are rare, but they do not lead to a team's overall success. They are achievements for the individual, just as Williams's numbers were in 1941.

The media angle is key. We are told that Joe D's streak "captivated the nation." Yeah, and? Does that make the actual act itself any more substantial?

In 2001, Barry Bonds set the single-season home run record with 73. The single-season home run mark is a cherished record in statistics-loving baseball. That season, Bonds led the Giants to the World Series. It's worth pointing out because his season-long offensive performance definitely was the leading role in the Giants' success that season.

(I still refuse to believe that people from Philadelphia -- where this
photo was allegedly taken -- could have spelled that many words
in a row correctly. Musta been some New Yorkers who made the
trip just to mock Baroid.)

Currently, Bonds is approaching Hank Aaron's career home run record -- the most beloved record in baseball (and by extension, since baseball is the most numbers-based, all of sports). Understandably, this is getting incredible media attention, due to both the number itself and the dubious circumstances under which Bonds has pursued it. Since Aaron set the record, no one has even come close, which makes clear the importance of what Bonds is doing. But anytime a player even reaches a 30-game hitting streak, all of a sudden Joe D is brought back into the spotlight, even though no one has gotten past 39 games (Paul Molitor, 1987) since Rose in 1978. Can anyone tell me any player with a 30-plus-game hitting streak whose team rode that to the playoffs?

When the yankees won the 1941 World Series, it was their fifth title in the previous six years. Did The Streak help them win it all? Sure. But during the other four Streak-less years, how did the yanks manage it? They had a hell of a team. Does anyone believe that if The Streak had ended at a mere 32 games, that that would have doomed the yanks' season? They won 101 games that year, most of which were not during The Streak.

"I'm no war hero. But I do still play "God Bless America"
every game during the 7th-inning stretch. I also rape puppies.
How much money do you have?"

A tremendous individual achievement over 1/3 of a season is just that. Not only does it not guarantee team success, it also leaves what that individual did over a significant majority of that season out. As far as individual achievements go, a season-long one is more impressive. Maris's and Bonds's feats attest to that. But even more impressive is an achievement that takes an entire career to fully add up and appreciate, and Hammerin' Hank's home-run tally defines that.

For whatever reason, something done over a mere 56 games has somehow managed to reach a similar level of prestige. And that just doesn't wash with me. After all, Ted Williams matched him -- and over a full season of 154 games -- yet his astounding season still lives in the shadow of DiMaggio's.

Again, DiMaggio did something undeniably amazing. But so did Williams. Neither effort has even been remotely challenged since. Yet one is a hallowed record, the other -- while respected -- doesn't come close in the eyes of most. That's why I say The Streak is overrated. A spectacular feat? Yes. But it stops there, and should not be considered among the top records in baseball history.


Joe said...

So, by your measure, Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game is even *less* impressive.

Matt Dabney said...


A more accurate analogy would be Kobe's streak of 50+ games this season compared to Wilt's season where he averaged 50.

The Notorious LJT said...

The streak was stopped against Cleveland - apparently the third basemen made a bunch of great defensive plays off of DiMaggio hits.

The next game, DiMaggio actually started another hitting streak that lasted 16 games, he hit safely in 72 of 73 games, which is pretty amazing.

Who started baseball's famous streak
That's got us all aglow
He's just a man and not a freak
Jolting Joe DiMaggio
Joe. . . Joe. . .DiMaggio
We want you on our side

From Coast to Coast, that's all you hear
Of Joe the One-Man Show
He's glorified the horsehide sphere
Jolting Joe DiMaggio
Joe. . . Joe. . .DiMaggio
We want you on our side

He'll live in baseball's Hall of Fame
He got there blow-by-blow
Our kids will tell their kids his name
Jolting Joe DiMaggio.

ChuckJerry said...

I was going to say exactly what Luke said. Minus the song.

"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, Jesus loves you more than words can show. Oh oh oh."

I think it's one of the records we can be confident will never be broken. That's what makes it one of the most respected records.

Ted Williams was the best hitter ever. Period. In that year or any other. (If you go out of your way to say "period" after a statement, you really shouldn't add anything more to it.)

I think you can make the same argument about all of these individual records, from the hit streak to home runs to no hitters. All of them are empty to a certain extent, except that baseball has a focus on numbers. In some ways it's the most individual of the team sports.

Pitching a no hitter counts the same in the win column as throwing a one-hitter, and helps the team as much as an 8 inning, 4 hit, two run performance if you win the game. You got the W, didn't stress the bullpen, and that's all you can ask for.

The Notorious LJT said...

the lyrics, chuck, are

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson.
Jotting Joe has left and gone away,
Hey hey hey.

Open Bar said...

I was just watching tonight's Red Sox-yankees game and Derek (Fucking) Jeter just surpassed Joltin' Joe on the all-time yankees hits list. Jeter currently has an (amazing!) 17-game hitting streak. Much as I had the bastard, I think he's one of the few players who might somehow have a shot at challenging Joe. He just seems to have what it takes, in terms of both talent and ability to withstand the inevitable media circus sure to pounce once/if he starts getting close (as in passing 30 games).

If that does happen, it will be disgusting.

And to Matt--you're right, a very good analogy.

Side Bar said...

I disagree that no one will break DiMaggio's record. I think there are plenty of players in baseball right now who are good enough to string together that kind of streak (Rollins (puke), Reyes, Pujols, Jeter, A-Rod (puke on puke)). Maybe not Pujols . . . need to have some speed to leg out those hits.

The only records that I think we can really say will NEVER be broken are the ones that reflect a fundamental change in the game. For example, Cy Young won over 500 games b/c he was allowed to pitch like every day. If a manager had a pitcher who could consistently win 20-25 games, then that manager would be considered an idiot for overusing the guy. 20 seasons of 25 wins and you still don't have the record? Then I feel comfortable saying the record will never be broken.

I also think Chris is right that .400 is more impressive than 56. Someone will do that again too, though.