Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak during the 1941 season is one of the most hallowed sports records of all time. Nobody has even come close to approaching it. I still remember when Pete Rose passed 40 games and the country went into a frenzy with his every at bat. But is a hitting streak really a measure of greatness?
- Something like a hitting streak brings drama to the baseball regular season and harkens back to the history of baseball. No other major sport can approach the historical context of baseball.
- A hitting streak shows a high degree of consistency over a long period of time. Most of the significant hitting achievements come from numbers accrued over many games. When a player hits 50 home runs or has 100 runs batted in, these numbers have accrued slowly over the entire season. Compared to this, a hitting streak demonstrates an every day consistency that most other statistics to not track.
- A hitting streak shows that a player has mental toughness and the ability to grind through the season. When a reporter asked why he played so hard, DiMaggio gave his famous response “Because there might have been somebody in the stands today who’d never seen my play before, and might never see me again”.
- During a hitting streak the pressure of each at bat grows exponentially with each game. Getting a hit in this circus environment shows a player who can hit under pressure. This is really the key to baseball. It’s no surprise that DiMaggio also performed at his peak during the critical games in the post season.
- During a hitting streak every game is a spectacle. This is important for baseball because other sports like football play only 16 regular season games and are grabbing the public’s attention from the marathon 162 game baseball regular season. As they say, “baseball may be a novel, but football is an action movie”. To keep up with the growing popularity of football, baseball needs to have as many summer blockbusters as possible.
- The odds are that not every game includes only one hit. For example, during DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, his batting average was .408 (91 for 223).
- A hitting streak is a simple statistic that is not as affected by performance enhancing drugs as other power statistics may be.
- Some call the hitting streak the most unbreakable record, and nobody has even been close lately. I think the most unbreakable record is Cy Young’s 511 career wins, but a record nobody can touch does mean something in itself.
- A hitting streak does not necessarily demonstrate a high degree of success. Even a player with an astounding 162 game hitting streak could possibly go only 162 for 600 and bat a very ho hum .270. So a 56 game hitting streak is not necessarily a meaningful statistic all by itself.
So my view on a hitting streak? I hate to say it, but the one single ‘Con’ seems to outweigh all the Pro’s combined. So you get 59 hits in consecutive games? What if you do it batting .270 the whole time while doing it? Does a hit per game necessarily count a lot towards a team winning?
The emphasis on a hitting streak has an arbitrary quality to it. Why doesn’t basketball attach a lot of value to consecutive games with a three? Do you have any idea who holds the record for a touchdown streak? Is the hitting streak phenomenon just a hold over from the ‘dead ball era’ of baseball at the turn of the century when run scoring was very low?
DiMaggio’s hitting streak happened the same year that Ted Williams hit over .400 for the entire season. That was the last time that any batter has surpassed the number .400 in a season. Does it make any sense that DiMaggio won the MVP that year over Williams–even though Williams not only batted 50 points higher for the season, but also hit seven more home runs? Williams batted about the same for the entire year that DiMaggio batted during his 56 game hitting streak (.406 to .408).
The hitting streak is like a no hitter: exciting and a once in a lifetime thing to see, but not a record of consequence in itself. A big reason why the record is so mythical is that Joe DiMaggio himself is mythical. If a lesser name held it, I wonder if the record would matter as much.
DiMaggio won 9 championships in 13 years, that’s what really defines his greatness.
Disagree? I look forward to your comments.