The Clipper or the Kid?by Frank Jackson
May 03, 2012
After more than 70 years, the top stories of 1941 remain Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Pearl Harbor, not necessarily in that order. All three remain subjects of reverence—and debate. Whether we could have foreseen the attack on Pearl Harbor and who was to blame for that lack of preparedness are still debated by historians, but we know when America entered World War II, when the war was over, and who won it, just as we know when the 1941 American League baseball season started, when it was over, and who won the MVP award. But that last topic remains a subject of debate.
While Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams’ .406 batting average were both singular achievements, the magnitude of those achievements has grown in the succeeding years, as no hitter has matched either man’s mark. But in 1941 only one American League MVP award could be made (a tie was a possibility, but so far that has only happened once, when Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell shared the National League award in 1979). If ever Solomonic wisdom were called for, this was such a situation. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a longstanding democratic tradition in the USA, but what to do when the opposite situation occurs?
Williams’ advocates often point out that DiMaggio profited from playing for the dominating Yankees who had another pennant-winning year; also, DiMaggio had the New York media behind him; Boston wasn’t exactly a backwater, but it was not media central—and the brash young Williams’ relations with sportswriters were less than amiable even though he was only in his third big league season.
Also, years of mediocrity had tarnished the Red Sox’ image. Thanks to the curse of the Bambino (not to mention dumping Tris Speaker and other prominent players), the Red Sox went from perennial worldbeaters to perennial also-rans; 23 uneventful years had passed since their 1918 championship, so that might have cost Williams a few votes. Even an incident in which Williams and team owner Tom Yawkey were excoriated by the Humane Society for shooting pigeons on an off-day at Fenway Park might have generated some negative publicity among the electorate. If Williams’ eyesight was as good as advertised, he likely bagged his limit and then some.
One can’t help but wonder how the voting would have gone if just one 0-for-3 or 0-for-4 day had been sandwiched in the middle of DiMaggio’s 56-game streak, breaking it up into two notable but hardly historic streaks, resulting in much less media attention. Then perhaps Williams would have copped the award, even if DiMaggio’s seasonal stats had remained essentially the same.
The Williams devotees like to point out that in 1941 their guy not only led the league in hitting with .406, his slugging percentage of .735 was way ahead of DiMaggio at .643, and Williams’ on-base-percentage of .553 was a record at the time. Williams also led the league in home runs with 37. DiMaggio with 30 didn’t even lead his team; Charley Keller led the Yankees with 33. In fact, DiMaggio didn’t even finish second on his team; Tommy Henrich had 31 home runs.
Admittedly, DiMaggio led the league in RBIs with 125, but Williams was only five RBIs behind and hence just that far away from the triple crown. Surprisingly, given the exalted status of their 1941 seasons, Williams and DiMaggio enjoyed “average” RBI seasons. Both men had six seasons where they eclipsed 125 RBIs (Williams: 1939, 1942, 1946, 1948, 1949 and 1951; DiMaggio: 1937, 1938, 1939, 1949, 1948, and 1950). In fact, DiMaggio’s league-leading total in 1941 matched his lowest RBI output achieved in his rookie year of 1936.
Perhaps the clincher for Williams advocates is that he outhit DiMaggio during that 56-game span. Rather than invite surprise, this statement should invite further scrutiny. Who was the most valuable player in 1941 is a tough call; the question of who was the more valuable player during that two-month mini-season of DiMaggio’s hitting streak is not an easy one either, but we can excise the statistics from that span and analyze them. While it is certainly true that Williams had a higher batting average than DiMaggio (.412 to .408) during that span, the other offensive stats only muddy the question of who out-hit whom, not to mention which player was more valuable.
In fact, DiMaggio’s average never surpassed Williams’ after the sixth game of the streak. DiMaggio burst out of the starting gate and was outhitting Williams by .409 to .348 after six games. But in the seventh game, Williams went 4-for-5 in an 8-6 victory over the Browns at Fenway Park, took the lead, and never looked back—which was probably a good thing because by Game 56, something was gaining on him.
Actually, the four-point difference in averages doesn’t begin to convey the story of how DiMaggio closed the gap. In the early going Williams was not just on a hitting streak but on a tear. By May 25, his average since DiMaggio’s streak began was .488 (and he nudged above .400 for the season for the first time), 147 points higher than DiMaggio’s; this was the greatest differential during the entire 56-game span. Matching DiMaggio’s streak for the first 17 games, Williams hit at a .510 clip during that span.
On June 6, Williams went 5-for-8 in a doubleheader at Detroit, boosting his overall average to .438, his high-water mark for the season. Williams’ streak ended at 23 games when the White Sox’ Ted Lyons stopped him on June 8. From that point on, Williams cooled off—relatively speaking—while temperatures and DiMaggio heated up. Williams himself was cognizant of DiMaggio’s accelerated offense. “I really wish I could hit like that guy Joe DiMaggio. I’m being honest. Joe’s big and strong and he can club that ball without any effort. These hot days I wear myself out laying into it, and I lose seven or eight pounds out there. When it’s hot, I lose my snap or something.”
Of course, we needn’t feel sorry for Ted Williams. Like DiMaggio, he enjoyed many more productive seasons and achieved iconic status in the game and heroic stature in popular culture.
If you want to feel sorry for anybody, how about the Senators’ Cecil Travis, who batted .359 (second, albeit distant, only to Williams) and led the league in hits with 218 (25 more than DiMaggio, 33 more than Williams). Or how about the Indians’ Jeff Heath? He enjoyed his best year with 199 hits (six more than DiMaggio, 14 more than Williams), a .340 average, 343 total bases (only five behind DiMaggio but eight ahead of Williams) and knocked in 123 runs (two less than DiMaggio, three more than Williams). To achieve such seasons in the shadow of either Williams or DiMaggio would be enough of a handicap; to achieve them in the shadow of both Williams and DiMaggio is to be relegated to footnote status.
Posterity might have been kinder to Heath and Travis had they had the good fortune to play on contenders (the Indians finished in fifth place at 75-79, the Senators were sixth with a 70-84 record). But this only brings up the ultimate tie-breaker, if one is needed, in our short-season More Valuable Player voting.
Personal achievements, such as hitting streaks, are often criticized because what is best for the team and what is best for the individual are not always identical. A case in point is in game 38 of DiMaggio’s streak on June 26. He was 0-for-3 against the Browns at Yankee Stadium and in need of one more at bat to continue his streak. Tommy Henrich came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning with one out, DiMaggio on deck, and a runner on first. Since the Yankees had a 3-1 lead at the time, and Henrich was a power hitter, there was no reason not to let him hit away. But if Henrich hit into a double-play—always a possibility with a runner on first and less than two outs—the eighth inning would be over and DiMaggio’s streak would be over unless the Browns scored at least two runs in the ninth inning.
After a conference with Joe McCarthy, Henrich laid down a bunt and sacrificed the runner to second. This would be sound strategy when the team is a run behind or tied in the top of the ninth, but not when one’s team is ahead, and one of the best hitters in the league is at bat. Clearly, the bunt was executed in order to give DiMaggio one last time at bat. We often hear of one hitter providing protection for the hitter adjacent to him in the batting order, but this is not the way it usually works!
At any rate, DiMaggio made good on his last at bat, the Yankees won, and the streak continued, so no harm, no foul. But suppose DiMaggio had failed in his fourth time at bat and the Browns had scored in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and send it into extra innings? Would the Yankees have dilly-dallied offensively in extra innings to avoid scoring until DiMaggio could be assured of one more at bat?
Actually, the team’s well-being and DiMaggio’s were hardly a conflict of interest. The Yankees and DiMaggio got off to a slow start in 1941, but DiMaggio’s streak coincided with a Yankee surge of 41-13 (true, that adds up to 54, not 56 games, but DiMaggio’s streak includes two suspended games), good for a .760 winning percentage, one that no team has ever maintained over the course of a season. The Yankees finished the year at 101-53, which works out to a .651 winning percentage. During the games that were not part of DiMaggio’s streak, the Yankees went 60-40 for a .600 percentage—hardly underachievement, but clearly their best days coincided with DiMaggio’s streak. Given the dominance of the Yankees’ 1941 season, perhaps the biggest surprise is that they drew only 964,722 fans.
As for Ted Williams and the Red Sox, the results were also positive, but less dramatic. The Red Sox started the season at 13-9. During the span of DiMaggio’s streak, they were 31-28. There were some games when Ted did not play due to injury, but in the games in which he participated, they were 29-23. For the season, the Red Sox went 84-70, finishing second in the American League, albeit a distant second (17 games) behind the Yankees.
Perhaps more important, when the streak began, the Yankees were playing their worst ball of the season, muddling along with a 14-14 record. Little did they know on day one of the streak, when they were thrashed by the White Sox 13-1, what lay in store. Only modest improvement was in order during the early games of the streak. They were only 25-22 (11-8 during the first 19 games of the streak) at the close of business on June 5, but then went on an eight-game winning streak This proved to be small potatoes when they won 14 in a row from June 28 through July 13. Clearly, the Yankees fortunes were a reflection of DiMaggio’s. He started out modestly, as did his team; when he went into overdrive, so did his team.
And that should tip the scales in DiMaggio’s favor as short-season, 56-game More Valuable Player. Clearly, DiMaggio’s streak wasn’t all about him. In a team sport, “Most Valuable Player,” or “Player of the Year,” or whatever the award is called, it is often bestowed upon the player who maximizes the number in his team’s win column. But even Herculean efforts can’t always propel a team to victory.
For example, consider the head-to-head games between the Red Sox and the Yankees during DiMaggio’s streak. Ted Williams batted .520 (13 for 25) against Yankee pitchers, but the Red Sox could only muster a 2-5-1 record. Meanwhile, DiMaggio batted a more modest .300 (9 for 30) during those games. Did he “lead” his team to that 5-2-1 record? Or did he just have a better supporting cast?
For the season, Boston led the league in hitting (.283), hits (1,517), doubles (304), OBP (.366), slugging (.430), and, most important of all, runs scored (865). Williams had a lot of help from teammates who ultimately joined him in Cooperstown (Bobby Doerr, Jimmy Foxx, Joe Cronin), not to mention Dom DiMaggio.
One might conclude that the Red Sox’ pitching in 1941 was not as stellar as their offense but that deficiency could hardly be blamed on Williams. The big name pitcher on the staff was Lefty Grove, but in the final year of his career he finished at 7-7 (which brought him to exactly 300 victories) with a 4.37 ERA.
The Yankees staff was led by Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing with 15 wins apiece, and Marius Russo was right behind with 14 victories. Four of the top 12 in ERA in the American League were Yankees.
More importantly, the Yankees allowed the fewest number of hits of any American league pitching staff. And in an era before relief specialists came into their own, the bullpen was also sound with 26 saves, 15 by Johnny Murphy. So if the Red Sox failed to seriously challenge the Yankees for the pennant, that was not the fault of Williams – but it probably cost him some MVP votes anyway.
Not that the legacy of Ted Williams needs it, but it is possible to provide a consolation prize of sorts for him. When DiMaggio started his streak, Williams matched him game for game, from May 15 through June 7. So let’s compare the stats for the simultaneous streaks. Here, Ted is the clear winner, going 43-for-88, a .489 clip, with six home runs and 27 RBI over 23 games, while DiMaggio was a “mere” 32-for-87 (.368) with three home runs and 16 RBI in 22 contests.
Even though the Yankees come out on top in wins and losses (Yanks 12-8-2; Sox 11-11-1), if we had to choose a More Valuable Player for that span, Williams would definitely be the man. While this 23-game span (actually, 22 for DiMaggio) might seem to be inconsequential if not downright meaningless, it is not that much shorter than the Player of the Month awards that are given throughout the regular season. Also, post-season MVP awards are given for the ALCS, the NLCS, and the World Series, which are as few as four but never more than seven games, and the All-Star Game gives out an MVP award for just one game. So it is not necessary to apologize for limiting the span to 23 games.
But it is intriguing to speculate what would happen if MVP voters today could vote in a retro election. Given the perspective of history, would contemporary voters choose differently? In 1941, DiMaggio went where no batsman had gone before, and Williams recognized that when he said, “I believe there isn’t a record in the books that will be harder to break than Joe’s 56 games. It may be the greatest batting achievement of all.”
From the standpoint of the 21st century, Williams’ .406 average is even more impressive than it was when he achieved it. The last .400 hitter had been Bill Terry, 11 years before Williams. During the first three decades of the century, a .400 average, while rare, was not unheard of. In 1941, MVP voters obviously noticed that it was occurring less frequently than before. Though they might have figured the .400 hitter was an endangered species, they had no way of knowing that he was about to become extinct. Had they been issued crystal balls along with their ballots, the voters might have leaned towards Williams.
“If I knew then what I know now!” is a common enough lament among voters in all sorts of elections. Do-overs may have their place in playground games—not so in the pros. As Tom Hanks might have put it, “There’s no recall elections in baseball.”
References and Resources
Hall of Fame Players/Cooperstown, by Bruce Herman, Publications International Ltd. (Lincolnwood, IL, 2007).
Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams, by Ed Linn (Harcourt Brace & Co. (New York, San Diego, London, 1993).
Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ’41, by Michael Seidel, Penguin Books (New York, 1989).
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.