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DiMaggio's Hitting Streak Is Overrated

Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak is regarded by some as the greatest achievement in baseball history; perhaps the greatest in all of sports history. It is widely considered in the realm of epic sports feats that includes Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, Bob Beamon’s 29-foot-2 broad jump, Wayne Gretzky’s 92-goal season and the like. This article explores the underlying basis for the Streak’s legendary regard.

DiMaggio had a terrific 56-game run in 1941 with a .408 batting average, 15 home runs and 16 doubles. However, several players out-hit DiMaggio over 56-game sequences: Rogers Hornsby batted .476 over 56 games in 1924, George Brett hit .480 over 56 games in 1980, and most notably, over the exact time period of DiMaggio’s streak, Ted Williams (in 55 games) hit .412 with many more walks (50 to 21) and a higher on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS: 1.224 to 1.180).

Why are DiMaggio’s 56 games included in epic sports lore while the superior feats of Hornsby, Brett and Williams (contemporaneously) are lost to history? 

The most common reason cited for exalting the Streak is that hitting safely in 56 consecutive games is unparalleled consistency. However, DiMaggio’s streak actually does not demonstrate any unusual consistency. The general understanding of consistency is to do roughly the same thing over and over again. In statistical terms, it is having a small standard of deviation - the mathematical way of saying that there is little variation in the performances.

During the Streak, DiMaggio averaged 1.63 +/- .93 hits per game as compared with Williams’ 1.40 +/- 1.05. For additional perspective, Yunel Escobar, who batted exactly the American League mean of .256 this season, averaged .88 +/- .90 hits per game over his first 56 games. There is no statistically significant difference in the three standard deviations (.93, 1.05, .90). Thus, basic mathematical analysis of consistency does not elevate The Streak above Williams’ contemporaneous hitting nor even distinguish DiMaggio’s consistency from a representative average hitter.

Without favorable mathematical analysis, Streak fans can only claim great consistency by changing the measured result from the usual “hits per game” to the contrived formulation “at least one hit in a game" and noting that DiMaggio “did not get zero hits” 56 games in a row. However, eliminating a single result from the 56 games — zero hits — does not necessarily create consistency. 

This is illustrated by the following example: a B on 56 consecutive exams would clearly demonstrate consistency. A grade of B or B+ on 56 consecutive exams might also be considered consistent. However, a student who received grades scattered in the A+ to D- range on 56 consecutive tests can say he got “at least a D- on every test” or “no F on every test” but would not be considered consistent. He does not demonstrate the spirit of consistency, as it is commonly understood. (If he wants praise, the student needs better grades.)

The Streak cannot even be considered, more broadly, consistently good hitting, because too many (23) of the games were subpar (one hit in four or five at-bats). The subpar games served mainly to fill in the gaps between the more worthy games, meeting the requirement for consecutive (at least one hit in a game). This was important because DiMaggio’s 56 games came to attention only as a consecutive streak.

However, it is an odd rendition of consecutive in which the events of interest — the hits — are separated and have no meaningful interaction. There is no benefit accrued by this sort of interrupted consecutiveness, as compared with, for example, consecutive hits in an inning leading to runs or multiple planks laid consecutively making a wooden bridge.

Without any special consistency or benefit related to the consecutive label, the mania that surrounds the 56-game hitting streak seems surprising. Its most instructive feature is that it is alone among consecutive streaks. Other long consecutive streaks generate nowhere near the same fanfare. Tom Brady recently came within one foot of throwing a touchdown pass in his 53rd consecutive game, a shade short of Drew Brees’ all-time record of 54. Brady is a popular superstar and the Patriots a marquee team, yet the game was just another game on another Sunday.

There was also little hoopla when Michael Jordan broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record for consecutive games scoring at least 10 points, and continued on to 866 in a row. Returning to baseball, Orel Hershiser’s 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988 receives substantially less attention than DiMaggio’s streak. Notably, a baseball streak of similar nature and value — most consecutive games getting on base (ironically held by Ted Williams at 84) — remains largely unknown despite the modern emphasis given to on-base percentage. It is understandable why this was ignored in 1949, but it is noteworthy that few noticed when Orlando Cabrera reached base safely in 63 consecutive games in 2006, and Mike Trout in 46 games this year.

The absence of great fanfare around the other long consecutive streaks suggests that fans and media intuit the limitations of these streaks. They are regarded as excellent performances based on the usual criteria and not unduly exalted beyond that. The exception is DiMaggio.

The major reason advanced to separate DiMaggio’s streak from other long consecutive streaks is that his was less likely to occur; therefore, more difficult. One can compare the relative odds of different streaks occurring based on the likelihood of each specific result in a game, and the length of the streak (i.e. a fraction less than one multiplied to the 56th, 59th, 84th, or 866th power). Several calculations of this sort are possible, yielding different results, but no matter how this type of analysis plays out, it surely misses the point: ALL of these long streaks have a near infinitesimal chance (typically one in ~ten or a hundred million or even less) of actually occurring.

For all practical purposes, the results are the same: You cannot make grandiose claims about the difference in sizes of amoebas. Without any meaningful distinction between DiMaggio’s streak and other long streaks, it follows that the unique exaltation of 56 is not rooted in the achievement itself, but rather in something else.

We can speculate about that something else. In 1941 DiMaggio was already a superstar, the Yankee Clipper, a rags-to-riches son of an immigrant fisherman. At that time baseball was particularly prominent in American culture. We are always partial to finding heroes, and America in 1941 may have been particularly ready. The depression was not far in the rear-view mirror. World War II was raging, Hitler was advancing; six days after DiMaggio’s streak started, the first United States ship was sunk by a German U-boat. Perhaps the situation was ripe for defining a super-hero: The right player at the right time with the right feat (pre-OBP and pre-WAR, the base hit was the coin of the realm). 

Then the super-hero married Marilyn Monroe, and was celebrated in song (“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?”), literature (“the Great DiMaggio” of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”) and television (“Mister Coffee”). As the DiMaggio aura blossomed, “56” became fixed in the American psyche and grew to transcend sports: The noted commentator Stephen Jay Gould called it “... the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives ... he cheated death”. 

The Streak does not warrant the hype.

Sheldon Hirsch is the co-author of "The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball."

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