The last person to hit 400 was the great Ted Williams, but Joe DiMaggio was voted MVP that year. It was 1941 when Williams hit 406, but that was also the year DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games. He also hit 351 but was well over 400 during “The Streak.” It’s highly improbable that anyone will ever hit over 400 again. The season is too long and players get tired or injured. But “The Streak” remains in a class by itself. There were players before Williams who hit 400 but no one but DiMaggio has ever hit in 56 straight games. The odds against it are incredible. The closest was when Willie Davis of the Dodgers hit in 31 straight games, not even close. Johnny Damon’s streak was 29 when he was still with the Red Sox. Ichiro Suzuki hit in 27 and at the time seemed the logical candidate to break the record. It never happened.
Just about every baseball record has been broken, but no one has come close to DiMaggio’s accomplishment. Ted Williams always said he was a better hitter than DiMaggio but that DiMaggio was the best all-around ball player. The “Streak” is the best indicator of that. But there is still another record that remains unbroken, Hack Wilson’s 191 RBIs in 1931 whilst playing for the Cubs. Is there any way to compare them?
Wilson suffered from Fetal Degenerative Syndrome, the result of his mother’s alcoholism when he was a fetus. As a consequence, he had a strange physique and odd features. Wilson became an alcoholic himself, which cut short his career and his life, which ended when he was 48. The 1931 Cubs finished third. The 1941 Yankees won the pennant and crushed the Dodgers in the World Series, four games to one. Therein lies the difference. For all of his statistics, DiMaggio was, unlike Williams, a team player.
DiMaggio burst onto the major-league landscape in 1936, helping the Yankees begin another dynasty. After winning only one pennant and World Series in the previous seven years, they won four straight world championships. In DiMaggio’s 13 seasons, they won 10 pennants and nine Series. In 1941, his streak played a major role in the Yankees pennant victory. The thing about DiMaggio was, he was a winner. For him, it was all about winning, not about his personal numbers. Whilst he was with the team, the Yankees were almost invincible.
So with Wilson’s record and DiMaggio’s, I go with the Holy Number of 56. I don’t want to be one of those codgers who
say everything was better in the past. It wasn’t. But I do think baseball was better. No mediocre left-hand pitcher would have commanded a seven-million-dollar contract. The same for some lame first baseman who happens to be left-handed. There weren’t as many injuries or the players just played through them. There weren’t as many teams. There are too many now, a reality that has debased the game because there simply aren’t enough good players to go around. The long season and the playoffs mean it goes on forever, the October Classic lasting well into November.
When you think of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, you realize how the game has deteriorated. Fans are beginning to lose interest. If a family of four goes out to a game, buys hot dogs, sodas and maybe two beers, you are talking about a four-hundred- dollar outing. Fugeddaboudit.
There are exceptions, of course. The Phillies’ pitching rotation is the stuff of legend, as is the career of Derek Jeter. But the whole idea now of expanding the playoffs is over the top. The reason for it is that attendance during the regular season is down and that fans don’t really start paying attention until the playoffs, so this is just a way to up the revenue.
The sad fact is that baseball is no longer iconic. There are some outstanding players around but they don’t generate the excitement of a DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson or Mickey Mantle. The sad fact is that baseball, dominated by corporate America, has become totally bland. No matter how hard the sportswriters and commentators try, they just can’t revive the spirit that made baseball America’s game. For a time, the NFL replaced it, but that is over as well. And that is not only because of the horrendous injuries suffered by the players. Most regular season games are tiresome and boring.
The sport of the future is soccer and it will continue to grow in popularity as America’s Latino population grows. The only places where baseball is still iconic are Japan and South Korea, where they are crazy for it. Maybe they can bring the excitement back to America. One can only hope.