By Glen Sparks
Joe DiMaggio knocked a run-scoring single on May, 15, 1941, against Chicago White Sox pitcher Eddie Smith. The next day, the New York Yankees centerfielder belted a home run and a triple. No one thought much about the three hits in two games, except maybe some Yankee fans who were undoubtedly happy that Joe D might finally be breaking out of his long slump. The great DiMaggio had hit just .194 in his previous 20 games.
The fans could rest easy. Their hero recorded at least one hit in 56 straight games, finally going hitless July 17 against the Cleveland Indians. Afterward, in the visitors’ clubhouse of Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, DiMaggio shrugged off his first 0-for day in more than two months. He even posed for a picture with his thumb and index finger stuck together—zero hits. About the only one disappointed was ketchup giant Heinz 57, hoping the streak might last one more game.
Most baseball fans think of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak as one of the game’s greatest records and one nearly impossible to break. DiMaggio eclipsed the mark once held by “Wee” Willie Keeler, who hit safely in 44 straight games in 1897, when foul balls didn’t even count as strikes.
The Yankee Clipper won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1941, in a year when the Boston Red Sox’ Ted Williams hit .406. And Williams was OK about finishing as runner-up. “Well, all right, but it took the Big Guy to beat me,” Teddy Ballgame said after the votes were in, according to Richard Ben Kramer’s 2000 biography Joe DiMaggio: A Hero’s Life.
But, did the writers make the right choice? Should Williams have finished first and DiMaggio second and not the other way around? Certainly, both future Hall of Famers enjoyed seasons for the ages. Here is a comparison of both players in 1941.
Avg. .406 (first in the A.L.)
BB 147 (first)
HR 37 (first)
R 141 (first)
Total bases: 335
Slugging Pct. .735 (first)
On-base Pct. .553 (first)
OPS 1.287 (first)
OPS+ 235 (first)
WAR 10.6 (first)
oWAR 10.9 (first)
RBI 125 (first in the A.L.)
Total bases 348 (first)
Slugging Pct. .643
On-base Pct. .440
Going just by that set of stats, Williams had the edge. He led the A.L. in 10 important offensive categories. DiMaggio led in two, although he did finish second in several others. Now, it should be noted that stats like OPS and WAR did not exist in 1941. Joe beat out Ted in several “counting stats” that were important in pre-sabermetric baseball—hits, doubles, triples, RBI and total bases.
What role did the streak play in DiMaggio’s first-place finish? Probably a lot. It earned plenty of attention, more than Williams’ run at .400. Even today, 56 seems to rest on more hallowed ground than .406., although the Splendid Splinter remains the last player to average a 2-fof-5 game over one big league season. Stephen Jay Gould, the late paleontologist and an ardent baseball fan, called DiMaggio’s streak “the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened in American sports.”
Sheldon Hirsch begs to differ. On Oct. 17, 2013, Hirsch wrote an article for the web site RealClearSports, with a provocative title, DiMaggio’s Streak is Overrated, and with just enough opinion and DiMaggio-deflating number crunching to annoy any long-time Yankee fan. So, here we go:
Hirsch points out that Williams actually hit for a higher batting average (.412 to .408) during the streak than did DiMaggio and had a higher OPS (1.224 to 1.180). Hirsch, author of The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball, also wrote that DiMaggio was rather mediocre in many of his games during the streak. (In 23 of the 56 games, he was just 1-4 or 1-5).
Beyond that, Hirsch pointed out that George Brett hit an unreal .480 for the Kansas City Royals over a 56-game period in 1980, the year he batted .390, and Rogers Hornsby hit .477 in a 56-game stretch for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1924, the year he finished at .424. Why don’t we read more about those great accomplishments?
Of course, a record is a record, and DiMaggio did break one, a 44-year-old one at that. (George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns had set the modern-day mark with a 41-game streak in 1922.) Williams didn’t break a record; he simply did something no one had done since the New York Giants’ Bill Terry in 1930 (.401.) Williams’ mark is 17th on the all-time list, well behind Hugh Duffy’s remarkable .440 in 1894 for the Boston Bean Eaters (the forerunner of the Boston Braves and the current Atlanta Braves).
The streak, though, was not the only thing that DiMaggio had going in his favor in 1941. It helped that the Yankees finished in first place with a 101-53 record, 17 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox. Another stat probably also helped out Joe D. After his 56-game hitting streak ended, DiMaggio went on a 16-game tear. He hit safely in 72 out of 73 games, also a record. Jason Stark, in a May 15, 2011 column titled Baseball’s Unbreakable Record, calls DiMaggio’s streak “the coolest, most romantic record in sports. … It’s the record that truly has it all.” And an MVP award to go with it.