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On This Day In History | 1941

November 27, 2012

4/18/1942 | Ted & Joe (AP)

On this day 71 years ago, Joe DiMaggio edged out Ted Williams for the American League MVP award, The Clipper’s second in three years.  Though the “Splendid Splinter” hit a remarkable .406 during the ’41 season, a mark not equalled since, it was DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak that seemed to weigh more heavily with the voters as DiMaggio beat out Williams 291-254.  DiMaggio led the league in RBIs while Williams led in runs, home runs, walks, batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage.

A debate still rages about which mark is superior: .406 or 56?  Neither have been equaled in the 7 decades since they were achieved and both evince consistency and excellence, so how could we possibly differentiate between the two?  Whenever you reach a stalemate in an argument, it’s always helpful to have a Harvard professor settle the dispute.  For our purposes, Stephen Jay Gould is of particular help.  Gould was an expert in paleontology and evolutionary biology, which may qualify him to be a curator at the Museum of Natural History, but not necessarily as the deciding voice in a baseball parley.  However, he was a passionate baseball fan and found the time to extensively write about the game he loved.  In the August 18, 1988 issue of The New York Times, he reviewed Michael Seidel’s book, Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ’41, giving a helpful perspective on DiMaggio’s milestone.

Viewing DiMaggio’s feat through the lens of sabermetrics, Gould was able to explain how unbelievable Joltin’ Joe’s streak truly was.  He first mentioned that most records are broken in incremental steps, like Roger Maris‘ 61 homers in 1961 besting the Babe’s 60 from 1927.  However, DiMaggio’s 56 shattered Wee Willie Keeler‘s streak of 44 in 1897, since approached only by Pete Rose‘s 44 in 1978.

Furthermore, while at first glance both .406 and 56 appear to reveal incredible consistency, there is one that is far superior in that category.  Gould writes that Maris’ 61 or Williams’ .406 are undoubtedly majestic, but do not require the type of daily consistency that hitting in 56 consecutive games demands.  “You can slump for a while, so long as your average holds,” writes Gould.  “But a streak must be absolutely exceptionless; you are not allowed a single day of subpar play, or even bad luck. You bat only four or five times in an average game. Sometimes two or three of these efforts yield walks, and you get only one or two shots at a hit.”  Thus he posits that, “Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six–game hitting streak is the greatest factual achievement in the history of baseball.”

The most fascinating part of Gould’s review comes when he alludes to his friend and colleague Ed Purcell, himself a Nobel laureate in physics, who had done extensive research on all of baseball’s records relating to streaks and slumps.  Purcell determined that every streak, including Baltimore’s 0-21 start in 1988, occurred within the framework of probability laws, i.e. nothing ever happened in the game of baseball beyond the frequency predicted with coin-tossing models, except one thing: DiMaggio’s streak.  According to the laws of probability it should have never happened.  Gould further explained, “Purcell calculated that to make it likely (probability greater than 50 percent) that a run of even fifty games will occur once in the history of baseball up to now (and fifty-six is a lot more than fifty in this kind of league), baseball’s rosters would have to include either four lifetime .400 batters or fifty-two lifetime .350 batters over careers of one thousand games.”

Thus, Gould concludes, “DiMaggio’s streak is the most extraordinary thing that ever happened in American sports.”  Now, no matter what a professor says, even a “Hahvahd” one at that, Williams’ snub will remain a point of contention in New England, only adding to the vibrant rivalry of the Yanks and Sox.

1941 Statistical Comparison

JD | 122 R | 193 H | 43 2B | 11 3B | 30 HR | 125 RBI | 76 BB | 13 SO | .357 BA | .440 OBP | .643 SLG

TW | 135 R | 185 H | 33 2B | 3 3B | 37 HR | 120 | 147 BB | 27 SO | .406 BA | .553 OBP | .735 SLG

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