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The Streak of Streaks

Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ‘41

by Michael Seidel
McGraw-Hill, 260 pp., $17.95

My father was a court stenographer. At his less than princely salary, we watched Yankee games from the bleachers or high in the third deck. But one of the judges had season tickets, so we occasionally sat in the lower boxes when hizzoner couldn’t attend. One afternoon, while DiMaggio was going 0 for 4 against, of all people, the lowly St. Louis Browns (now the even lowlier Baltimore Orioles), the great man fouled one in our direction. “Catch it, Dad,” I screamed. “You never get them,” he replied, but stuck up his hand like the Statue of Liberty—and the ball fell right in. I mailed it to DiMaggio, and, bless him, he actually sent the ball back, signed and in a box marked “insured.” Insured, that is, to make me the envy of the neighborhood, and DiMaggio the model and hero of my life.

I met DiMaggio a few years ago on a small playing field at the Presidio of San Francisco. My son, wearing DiMaggio’s old number 5 on his Little League jersey, accompanied me, exactly one generation after my father caught that ball. DiMaggio gave him a pointer or two on batting and then signed a ball for him. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.

My son, uncoached by Dad, and given the chance that comes but once in a lifetime, asked DiMaggio as his only query about life and career: “Suppose you had walked every time up during one game of your fifty-six–game hitting streak? Would the streak have been over?” DiMaggio replied that, under 1941 rules, the streak would have ended, but that this unfair statute has since been revised, and such a game would not count today.

My son’s choice for a single question tells us something vital about the nature of legend. A man may labor for a professional lifetime, especially in sport or in battle, but posterity needs a single transcendant event to fix him in permanent memory. Every hero must be a Wellington on the right side of his personal Waterloo; generality of excellence is too diffuse. The unambiguous factuality of a single achievement is adamantine. Detractors can argue forever about the general tenor of your life and works, but they can never erase a great event.

In 1941, as I gestated in my mother’s womb, Joe DiMaggio got at least one hit in each of fifty-six successive games. Most records are only incrementally superior to runners-up; Roger Maris hit sixty-one homers in 1961, but Babe Ruth hit sixty in 1927 and fifty-nine in 1921, while Hank Greenberg (1938) and Jimmy Foxx (1932) both hit fifty-eight. But DiMaggio’s fifty-six–game hitting streak is ridiculously and almost unreachably far from all challengers (Wee Willie Keeler and Peter Rose, both with forty-four, come second). Among sabremetricians1—a contentious lot not known for agreement about anything—we find virtual consensus that DiMaggio’s fifty-six–game hitting streak is the greatest accomplishment in the history of baseball, if not all modern sport.

The reasons for this respect are not far to seek. Single moments of unexpected supremacy—Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters of 1938, Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series—can occur at any time to almost anybody, and have an irreducibly capricious character. Achievements of a full season—Maris’s sixty-one homers, Ted Williams’s batting average of .406, also posted in 1941 and not equaled since—have a certain overall majesty, but they don’t demand unfailing consistency every single day; you can slump for a while, so long as your average holds. But a streak must be absolutely exceptionless; you are not allowed a single day of subpar play, or even bad luck. You bat only four or five times in an average game. Sometimes two or three of these efforts yield walks, and you get only one or two shots at a hit. Moreover, as tension mounts and notice increases, your life becomes unbearable. Reporters dog your every step; fans are even more intrusive than usual (one stole DiMaggio’s favorite bat right in the middle of his streak). You cannot make a single mistake.

Thus Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six–game hitting streak is both the greatest factual achievement in the history of baseball and a principal icon of American mythology. What shall we do with such a central item of our cultural history? Michael Seidel’s happy response is a book devoted not to generalities or implications of the streak—many have done this, too many times—but to day-by-day details of how a man gets from one to fifty-six with no misses in between. This book chronicles the intricate factual events of DiMaggio’s achievement, and pays the best kind of proper respect, while providing the right sort of description. I shall return to Seidel, but first let me illustrate another approach to such an icon.

Statistics and mythology may seem the most unlikely bedfellows. How can we quantify Caruso or measure Middlemarch? But if God could mete out heaven with the span (Isaiah 40:12), perhaps we can say something useful about hitting streaks. The statistics of “runs,” defined as continuous series of good or bad results (including baseball’s streaks and slumps), is a well-developed branch of the profession, and can yield clear—but wildly counterintuitive—results. (The fact that we find these conclusions so surprising is the key to appreciating DiMaggio’s achievement, the point of this article, and the gateway to an important insight about the human mind.)

Start with a phenomenon that nearly everyone both accepts and considers well understood—“hot hands” in basketball. Now and then, someone just gets hot, and can’t be stopped. Basket after basket falls in—or out as with “cold hands,” when a man can’t buy a bucket for love or money (choose your cliché). The reason for this phenomenon is clear enough; it lies embodied in the maxim: “When you’re hot, you’re hot; and when you’re not, you’re not.” You get that touch, build confidence; all nervousness fades, you find your rhythm; swish, swish, swish. Or you miss a few, get rattled, endure the booing, experience despair; hands start shaking and you realize that you shoulda stood in bed.

Everybody knows about hot hands. The only problem is that no such phenomenon exists. The Stanford psychologist Amos Tversky studied every basket made by the Philadelphia 76ers for more than a season. He found, first of all, that probabilities of making a second basket did not rise following a successful shot. Moreover, the number of “runs,” or baskets in succession, was no greater than what a standard random, or coin-tossing, model would predict. (If the chance of making each basket is 0.5, for example, a reasonable value for good shooters, five hits in a row will occur, on average, once in thirty-two sequences—just as you can expect to toss five successive heads about once in thirty-two times, or 0.55.)

Of course Larry Bird, the great forward of the Boston Celtics, will have more sequences of five than Joe Airball—but not because he has greater will or gets in that magic rhythm more often. Larry has longer runs because his average success rate is so much higher, and random models predict more frequent and longer sequences. If Larry shoots field goals at 0.6 probability of success, he will get five in a row about once every thirteen sequences (0.65). If Joe, by contrast, shoots only 0.3, he will get his five straight only about once in 412 times. In other words, we need no special explanation for the apparent pattern of long runs. There is no ineffable “causality of circumstance” (if I may call it that), no definite reason born of the particulars that make for heroic myths—courage in the clinch, strength in adversity, etc. You only have to know a person’s ordinary play in order to predict his sequences. (I rather suspect that we are convinced of the contrary not only because we need myths so badly, but also because we remember the successes and simply allow the failures to fade from memory. More on this later.) But how does this revisionist pessimism work for baseball?

My colleague Ed Purcell, Nobel laureate in physics but, for purposes of this subject, just another baseball fan,2 has done a comprehensive study of all baseball streak and slump records. His firm conclusion is easily and swiftly summarized. Nothing ever happened in baseball above and beyond the frequency predicted by coin-tossing models. The longest runs of wins or losses are as long as they should be, and occur about as often as they ought to. Even the hapless Orioles, at 0 and 21 to start this season, only fell victim to the laws of probability (and not to the vengeful God of racism, out to punish major league baseball’s only black manager).

But “treasure your exceptions,” as the old motto goes. There is one major exception, and absolutely only one—one sequence so many standard deviations above the expected distribution that it should not have occurred at all. Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six–game hitting streak in 1941. The intuition of baseball aficionados has been vindicated. Purcell calculated that to make it likely (probability greater than 50 percent) that a run of even fifty games will occur once in the history of baseball up to now (and fifty-six is a lot more than fifty in this kind of league), baseball’s rosters would have to include either four lifetime .400 batters or fifty-two lifetime .350 batters over careers of one thousand games. In actuality, only three men have lifetime batting averages in excess of .350, and no one is anywhere near .400 (Ty Cobb at .367, Rogers Hornsby at .358, and Shoeless Joe Jackson at .356). DiMaggio’s streak is the most extraordinary thing that ever happened in American sports. He sits on the shoulders of two bearers—mythology and science. For Joe DiMaggio accomplished what no other ballplayer has done. He beat the hardest taskmaster of all, a woman who makes Nolan Ryan’s fastball look like a cantaloupe in slow motion—Lady Luck.

Seidel’s book succeeds with a simple and honorable premise. The streak itself is such a good story, such an important event in our cultural history, that the day-by-day chronicle will shape a bare sequence into a wonderful drama with beginning, middle, and end. And so we move from the early days of DiMaggio’s streak, when no one realized that anything of interest was happening; through the excruciating middle games when George Sisler’s modern record of forty-one, then Keeler’s all-time mark of forty-four, were approached and broken; to later times of pleasure and coasting when DiMaggio was only smashing his own record, set the day before; and to the final, fateful game fifty-seven, when Ken Keltner made two great plays at third base and lost DiMaggio the prospect of a lifetime advertising contract with the Heinz ketchup company.

But just as baseball, at least in our metaphors, is so much more than a game, Seidel has written more than a sports book. Seidel is professor of literature at Columbia University, and Streak belongs to a growing genre of baseball books written by, if you will pardon my citation of the last footnote, “pointy-heads” (no offense intended since I, alas, am one). Baseball has long enjoyed a distinguished literature, from Ring Lardner to the incomparable Roger Angell—and I have seen no satisfactory resolution for the old puzzle of why baseball, but no other sport, has attracted some of America’s finest writers. But the new genre is quite different—serious, scholarly books treating baseball as something that might even get you tenure at a major university (as something other than athletic coach): Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment,3 on Jackie Robinson and the racial integration of the game; or Charles C. Alexander’s Ty Cobb,4 a sociology of a time as well as a biography of the greatest and nastiest player of them all.

  1. 1

    A happy neologism based on an acronym for members of the Society for American Baseball Research, and referring to the statistical mavens of the sport.

  2. 2

    Richard Sisk of the New York Daily News Sunday magazine (March 27, 1988) wrote a funny article about the sabremetric studies of three Harvard professors—Purcell, Dudley Herschbach, and myself. It ran with the precious title: “Buncha Pointyheads Sittin’ Around Talkin’ Baseball.”

  3. 3

    Oxford University Press, 1983.

  4. 4

    Oxford University Press, 1984.

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