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Jolting Joe?

Robbing Mr. DiMaggio of his hitting streak.

By 5.29.14

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It has been an important hallmark of the conservative movement during its 50-year run to point to the steady decline of Western Civilization; to a broad disrespect for the rule of law in general, and specifically in the areas of religion, education, and government. But many current conservatives bristle at the idea that this decline affects our sports and entertainment worlds as well. As readers of this column know, this has never been a problem for me; feeling as I do that virtually nothing worthwhile has come out of the music, art or cinema fields in past half-decade or so. Ditto for our sports pantheon, where rule changes and technology have enabled records to be broken, yet despite the emergence of a few truly great players, the quality of play itself has been greatly diminished; especially in Major League Baseball.

And so, it was with weary disdain that I read, a few weeks ago, a column by Joel Sherman in the New York Post basically purporting that Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak would be harder to accomplish if the Yankee Clipper played today. To compare players of different eras is foolish, but to compare DiMaggio himself with the modern era is akin to baseball heresy; a fact Sherman himself acknowledges—claiming he will surely receive hate mail—but which does not restrain him from indulging his fantasy. And a fantasy is what it most surely is. He writes:

But, in general, consider DiMaggio never faced computer-generated shifts designed specifically to put fielders where he hit the ball most often. Also, in 1941, he never faced a player of color or from Asia, or hit into improved gloves and infields manicured to near perfection to provide true hops. Perhaps most important, DiMaggio was a half century away from the onset of match-up relief.

Let’s get something straight. There were nearly always 10 pitchers on a major league roster. And while it’s true that many pitchers stayed in to complete their games, these were usually those on the winning side of the ledger. And when any pitcher tired or was getting roughed up, he was replaced by one of the other men in the bullpen. Does anyone really think that tight-fisted owners like Horace Stoneham, Charles Comiskey, or Frank Navin simply carried those extra five or six pitchers’ salaries out of the goodness of their hearts?

As a matter of fact, in the 1940s the complete game rate was only 43 per cent. And if you don’t believe me, have a look at the cumulative 1941 World Series box score, where a total of 21 pitchers were used in five games. Were these extra men in the bullpens great pitchers? No more or less than most of those toiling as relievers today, with the exception being the “closer” who, in important games in days past, would most likely be your best available starter; like sometimes still happens in modern postseason games. Indeed, in DiMaggio’s final at-bat in the streak, he was stopped by All Star Jim Bagby Jr., a starter, pitching in relief for the Cleveland Indians.

And Joe never playing against people of color or Asians somehow affected his greatness? Frankly I’m tired of this racist assertion; one, by the way, which is never used in connection with Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, or any other great black players who never faced Asians either. And is the fact that there has historically been a dearth of quality black pitchers in baseball, and almost none pitching today, used to denigrate modern hitters? I didn’t think so. The point being, they all competed against the best available players of their time, especially those who played in the pre-expansion days when competition was much fiercer.

Another factor unmentioned by Sherman, and going against Joe D, was that when he played, official scorers actually gave errors when deserved; apparently a lost art today. Despite the increased glove sizes, a ball usually has to go through a player’s wickets to earn a fielding error in modern baseball. A quick check reveals that the 25 lowest averages of errors per game have occurred in the last 25 years. Indeed, the average of errors per game has steadily decreased since the 1930s, when it was twice what it is today. Does anyone seriously think this means that fielders are better than they were then? Or could this possibly reflect the decision of MLB in 1980 to hire its own official scorers rather than rely on baseball writers as they had in the past? And before you cite two possible hit calls that went Joe’s way during his streak, consider that there were at least two that were ruled errors.

The most spurious and nonsensical of all of these foolish assertions is that DiMaggio never had to hit against the modern shift. Now this argument would hold little water against most average players of only 30 years ago, who were skilled in bat-handling, but holds none against the great DiMaggio who, for his career hit 361 home runs while striking out only 369 times. Yes, you read that right: he averaged one strikeout per home run. Had managers in 1941 been foolish enough to employ a shift against a man with that kind of bat control, the streak may have never ended. The shifts so often used today may make it harder for today’s hitters, but that’s merely because batters are not taught to hit to all fields. To suggest the reverse is sheer folly.

The hard truth is, that even with a postage stamp-sized strike zone and few brushback pitches, today’s batters are simply not equipped to do those things that made even light-hitting utility infielders of the past valuable to their teams; like bunting, hitting behind runners, and executing the hit-and-run. The devaluation of hitting for average in favor of the home run—when was the last time you saw a hitter choke up on the bat?—has hurt the game. Even Sherman warms to this revolutionary idea in his piece, citing an unnamed Moneyball exec:

Has batting average gone from being an overrated statistic to an underrated one? I do think you are onto something. With all of these strikeouts everywhere, we are so home-run-dependent, and while home runs are always the best single thing, it does feel like we see situations every game where teams can’t move runners from second or third.

How about hitting for power and for average? Thankfully, there are a few players today who possess this happy combination—albeit with too many strikeouts—and maybe one day one of them will approach the streak of the great DiMaggio. But could Joe do it if he played today? Maybe yes, maybe no; there was a heckuva lot of luck involved. But if he didn’t, you can bet it wouldn’t be the shift, Japanese pitchers, bigger gloves, or snarling closers that would stop him.

Let the hate mail commence.

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About the Author

Lisa Fabrizio is a columnist who hails from Connecticut (mailbox@lisafab.com).