DiMaggio's Streak Stricken?

Article excerpt

Roger Angell, poet laureate of baseball, calls it "the premier one-season offensive record in the game." Michael Seidel, author of Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of '41, calls it "a legendary sequence, perhaps the most admired sequence in sports history." The Arts & Entertainment Network, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the game that ended it, airs an hourlong documentary on its hero--surely the greatest fuss ever made over a walk, two groundouts and a double-play bouncer to short. The New York Times dusts off the box scores of these half-century-old baseball games for us and illuminates their highlights; it's like watching DiMaggio "by flashes of lightning." In short, the awe in which The DiMaggio Streak is held by the baseball community continues to grow. Why?

In baseball, one always begins with the numbers. From May 15 through July 16, 1941, over fifty-six consecutive games, Joseph Paul DiMaggio amassed fifty-six singles, sixteen doubles, four triples, fifteen home runs, twenty-one walks, two hit-by-pitched balls, fifty-six runs scored, fifty-five runs batted in--for a batting average of .408, a slugging average of .717 and an on-base average of .463.

As we shall see, none of these numbers are unprecedented. None are even rare. Every one has been bettered by large margins, over and over again, not only for fifty-six-game stretches but for whole seasons, for strings of seasons--even, in some cases, for entire careers. The rain-delay debates on the proposition, "Resolved, that nobody will ever exceed Joe DiMaggio's streak" would be better spent debating, "Resolved, that nobody should care." For what was going on here? Hits of DiMaggio's that could often have been put to more productive use a day earlier or a day later fell isntead, with pointless regularity, one per game. During the fifty-six games, I count seven occasions when Joe came to the plate hitless in his last four at-bats, and two occasions when he was hitless in his last five. But in each case these "of-fors" spanned two games instead of being confined to one. On that statistical anomaly rests "the premier one-season offensive record in the game"? That is like saying Leroy Neiman is a greater artist than Pablo Picasso because Leroy Neiman paints at least one picture every day. It is time to debunk The Streak.

Batting average is the usual measure of consistency. Opportunities seized (hits) are divided by opportunities presented (at-bats). Perfection is 1.000; perfect ineptitude is .000. DiMaggio hit .408 during his streak. For reference, assume Joe had maintained that pace throughout his 139-game season. That season would rank fifteenth in the history of baseball, his .40807 squeezing him a shoelace ahead of Joe Jackson's .40806 in 1911. But--that's a hypothetical year inserted among real years. To judge Joe fairly, we must look at comparable fifty-six-game stretches in other hitters' careers, and that is what you will find (courtesy of the fine library at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York) in Tables I, II and III.

In Table I are seven fifty-six-game bashes that humble Joe's .408. Babe Ruth's may be the most remarkable: If you throw in Babe's fifty-seven walks you get an on-base average of .578 compared with Joe's .463. Ty Cobb's stretch was business as usual for the game's greatest hitter. From 1911 through 1913, over a total of 408 games, Ty hit just that: .408. Rogers Hornsby, who hit .402 for 696 games over five seasons (now there's a streak), is fittingly at the top of the heap: His .480 tear is from his .424 year, the record in this century. One could

                         TABLE I
Hitter             Dates                          Average
Joe DiMaggio       May 15-July 16, 1941            .408
Rod Carew          April 24-June 29, 1977          .429
George Sisler      April 18-June 18, 1922          . …