October 2014

# My First Database—Baseball Cards

By Rich Junker

As promised with the prior issue of CompAct in the predecessor article, “Have You Lost That Loving Feeling, For Mathematics,” this month’s paean to baseball will stir up embers of the undying debate over who was the world’s best baseball player in 1941, Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio.

Perhaps you first experienced the joy of numbers as I did long ago, through baseball statistics. If so, then this investigation is for you. If not so, then just read along for an introduction to two wondrous exemplars of the American hero, Joltin’ Joe, Marilyn Monroe’s eternal paramour, and Teddy Ballgame, the eternal pride of Boston.

My transcendent realization that I loved math was at age eight, when I found a rubber-banded pack of baseball cards, including one of my idol Ted Williams. How I pored over those statistics on every player, down even to: Bats Left/Throws Right, Born 8/30/1918, San Diego, Calif., Height 6’4”, Weight 198# (when he was the Splendid Splinter). My first database!

Accordingly, an article on the joy of mathematics from an actuary hooked to his future profession by a love of baseball must include a good controversy, one that can be resolved only by data analysis:

Who was better in 1941, Ted Williams (the last .400 hitter) or Joe DiMaggio (the 56-game hitting streak)? The Red Sox guy or the Yankees guy?

Recall that in 1941 Joe DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak and won the MVP award. Ted Williams hit .406 and came in a distant second in the voting. During the 56 games of DiMaggio’s streak, Ted’s stats were better:

# MVP 1941: Williams or DiMaggio?

In DiMaggio’s 56 games, he batted .408 with 15 home runs, 55 RBIs and scored 56 runs. He walked 21 times and whiffed just five times. He reached base via hit or walk 112 times. Now that’s impressive. However ...

His rival to the north in Boston was even more impressive. During those same 56 games, Williams played in 55 games and batted .412 and scored 61 runs. He hit 12 homers and drove in 50, but reached base 127 times, 50 times via a walk. Williams had a higher average, on-base and slugging percentage than DiMaggio during the famous Yankee’s notorious streak.

During 56-Game Streak 1941

 Statistic Williams DiMaggio At Bats 187 223 Games 55 56 Batting Average 0.412 0.408 Home Runs 12 15 Hits 77 91 Walks 50 21 Hits + Walks 127 112 RBI 50 55 Runs 61 56 Strike outs NA 5 OBA 0.536 0.459 Slugging Percentage N/A—more than DiMaggio's (need triples and double to compute) N/A Season Batting Average 0.406 0.357 # Firsts in MVP Voting 1941 8 15

Why Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak is overrated
Joe DiMaggio wasn't baseball's best hitter during his hitting streak.

For nearly 75 years, the number 56 has remained magical among baseball fans. Joe DiMaggio. 1941. We fans have long cited the “Modern Era” as beginning with Babe Ruth in the 1920s, the end of the dead ball era. Yet baseball as it’s played today bears little resemblance to the baseball of 1941. Today’s era is one in which Joe DiMaggio could not achieve a 56-game hitting streak if he were playing now.

The entry during the ’40s and ’50s of African-American and Latino ballplayers long ago boosted the quality of the athletes. The specialization of pitching, with short and long relievers makes it much more challenging to produce the numbers of Williams’ and DiMaggio’s era. Hitting streaks of the past 40 years have not remotely approached 56 games. Joe DiMaggio could not have accomplished such a streak if he were batting against today’s much more powerful, year-round trained, vastly better paid, pitchers. Bob Feller was the flamethrower of the DiMaggio era, hitting 98 mph tops on the speed gun. Every other team of today has a pitcher regularly throwing over 100 mph. The relievers come in battalions, never giving a hitter the repeated at bats to let him figure out the starting pitcher, never giving the hitter a shot at the starting pitcher tiring deep into the game.

Baseball is a game of numbers, so a consecutive game streak sells a lot of newspapers. Nonetheless, over the same time span, it’s inevitable that at least one player from the other 15 teams in major league baseball will be more productive than a batter on a long hit streak.

In 1941, that player was Ted Williams. Look to the statistics. During that season, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox hit .406 to become the first player since 1930 to reach that incredible milestone. DiMaggio batted an admirable .357 in ‘41, but that was 49 points below Williams. The Splendid Splinter scored more runs, had only five fewer RBIs than DiMaggio and had a higher on-base and slugging percentage.

Yet, DiMaggio outdistanced Williams for MVP getting 15 first-place votes to Williams’ eight. Williams was no fan of sports writers who voted for the MVP. But the magical streak didn’t hurt DiMaggio’s fortunes. Being a Yankee didn’t hurt. Being The Yankee Clipper, the preeminent monarch of Centerfield, didn’t hurt.

Certainly the streak was magical for DiMaggio. But examining the numbers a little deeper shows that even during that streak, Williams was better by far. His on base average was more than 50 percent, at .536, versus DiMaggio’s far lagging on base average of .459. Williams’ career on base average of .482 exceeds DiMaggio’s during his fabled 56-game hitting streak. Until Barry Bonds 60 years later, no player aside from Babe Ruth and dead-ball 1890s-era players had achieved a full season on base average of more than 50 percent.* That statistic is the key to Williams’ reputation as, and life’s ambition to be recognized as, the best hitter who ever lived—he had such extraordinary eyesight and plate discipline that he led the league in walks year after year. His vision was 20/12, the stuff of elite combat pilots, which he also was.

Nothing against the amazing consistency that the Yankee Clipper showed during those two months in 1941, but there was a vastly better hitter during the 56-game streak. That hitter was Ted Williams.

So. A wrong is not righted, but them’s the facts, lit up for today.

With the saber metrics now processed and dispatched, I trust you have continuing appetite to learn more of Ted Williams the man, a tremendous patriot, though often a tormented human being.

He was a polymath: the greatest hitter who ever lived, the best pilot in U.S. aviation history, the greatest fisherman of all time—he made millions for Sears Roebuck’s Outdoor Division.

First, the biography:
Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero
By Leigh Montville

Second, Richard Ben Cramer’s tribute to Ted Williams, Great Man. A 100-page mini-bio.
What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?: A Remembrance
By Richard Ben Cramer

Third, the best short story on Ted ever written: