Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Jolting Revelation about Joltin' Joe

Not only was Joe DiMaggio an All-Star player and The Yankee Clipper, he was an American Icon. Songs were written about him, little boys wanted to be him, and women wanted to be with him, including America's sweetheart Marilyn Monroe. Tall. Dark. Handsome. And a swing like poetry. He was larger than life. During his tenure with the New York Yankees, they won 9 World Championships, including four straight.  In 1941, he had the longest hit streak of all-time, totaling 56 games over a three month period, a mark many predict will never be approached again. Even though his hit streak was amazing, amounted almost as many championship rings as fingers, and produced like an all-star consistently,  I believe he is the most overrated player to ever play the game.

Looking at his career statistics I am impressed, but they are not Hall of Fame worthy, and nowhere near legendary. DiMaggio did finish in the top 10 in MVP voting every season he played but two, winning three of the awards. And although he was an All-Star every year in his 13 year career (the only player to ever achieve all-star status every season in which they played) and missed three seasons because of World War II, I still don't see it. I know I'm desecrating sacred baseball grounds but the fact is he didn't reach any of the benchmark numbers Hall of Fame voters look at in the voting process: 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. He had 2,214 hits and 361 home runs respectively. At the time of his retirement however he was ranked fifth all-time in home runs. Even if you take his great average season stats of 170 hits and 28 home runs (Dimaggio averaged 130 games a season) and multiply it by three for the seasons he missed during the war and add it to his career totals, he still wouldn't reach 3,000 hits or 500 home runs (projected stats: 2724 hits, 445 home runs). Now take best case scenario with his career high in hits (215) and home runs (46) and do the same, he would be close (best case scenario projected stats: 2,859 hits and 499 home runs). However he only had 200 or more hits twice in his big league career, his first and second seasons (1937-1938), and only had two seasons over 35 home runs twice (1937 and 1948), making it highly unlikely that he could average his career highs in the three consecutive seasons he missed during the war. In WWII he served as a sergeant in the US Air Force where he instructed physical education while stationed at Santa Ana, California, Hawaii, and Atlantic City, New Jersey from 1943-1945.

Many say DiMaggio's power numbers were handicapped by the fact that at the time he played in Yankee Stadium the left-center field fence was an astonishing 457 feet from home plate, which is the right handed hitters' power alley. Fellow teammates and Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford proclaim that many of DiMaggio's hard hit balls to the power alley would have been home runs at any other stadium. Heralded statistician Bill James claims that he calculated that no other hitter in the history of the game lost more chances at home runs due to their home field than Joe DiMaggio. But where there is more space, there are more hits because of more ground to cover. What he may have lost in home runs, he gained in hits due to the large gap between left field and center field. And like the old saying goes, "close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades."  Any calculated home runs do not count. Mantle himself had over 500 home runs in his career and played at the same stadium.

Late in DiMaggio's career he suffered from knee and leg injuries, greatly depreciating his speed, defensive ability, and hitting base. He retired at just 37 years old and 13 career big league seasons, saying that, "I was full of aches and pains and it had become a chore for me to play. When baseball is no longer fun, it's no longer a game, and so, I've played my last game." He went on to explain that even if he had a career season (only hitting .263 with 109 hits and 12 home runs in his last year) he would have retired anyway due to the everyday pain of playing. It is admirable that he walked away when he wanted to instead of lumbering through a few more seasons in an attempt to build his numbers and collect more paychecks, but many great players have been cut down earlier than they anticipated, missing out at a chance of the glory of the Hall of Fame. But somehow DiMaggio's short sightings were overlooked.

If you take DiMaggio's numbers and compare them to other players in history of the game, who do you get who has almost identical statistics? Larry Walker, the former Colorado Rockies' great. Walker amassed 2,160 (54 less than DiMaggio),383 home runs (22 more than DiMaggio), and a .313 average (Dimaggio had a career average of .325).  I know Larry Walker was a country music fan but I've never heard any songs about him. The Canadian slugger, who did not play baseball until high school because he was a hockey player, did not have near the team success Joe DiMaggio had, reaching the playoffs three times in his career (twice with the St. Louis Cardinals in his last two seasons). He also didn't marry America's sweetheart or play for the most historic franchise in the Major Leagues. However he won the 1997 NL MVP award, finished in the top 10 in MVP voting 4 times (it is harder to be nominated for the MVP today due to the fact that there are twice as many teams in the league as there were in DiMaggio's playing days meaning there are twice as many players, decreasing
the already minute odds of being an MVP by half compared to DiMaggio's time), 7 time Gold Glove winner (best fielder at his position), 3 time Silver Slugger winner (best hitter in his position), 1998 ESPY Best Baseball Player (voted by the fans), 3 time NL batting champion, and 1997 home run champion. A very impressive career.

Larry Walker became eligible for the Hall of Fame this year and only recieved 20.3% of the Hall of Fame votes. A candidate must recieve 75% of the votes to gain election in the Hall of Fame. In comparison, DiMaggio recieved 88.4% of the votes in his third year on the ballot. It is possible Walker will eventually gain 55% more votes to become a Hall of Famer, but probably not in less than a decade, let alone gaining 68.1% to match DiMaggio in two more years. Even though his numbers are nearly identical to DiMaggio and has similar individual achievements, he will most likely not be elected to the Hall of Fame.

I understand that DiMaggio was more than numbers on a sheet. Ernest Hemigway made several references to "the great DiMaggio" (his favorite baseball player) in his classic novel, The Old Man and The Sea. Woody Guthrie, Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, and several other musicians sang songs about him. His name or likeness has appeared in multiple prominent television series: I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, Frasier, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Mad Men. He's been a pop icon for over six decades. His legacy transcended the game and continues to do so. But it only makes his career that much more overrated. Lacking the career length and the aggregate numbers I don't see how his time on the playing field merits a ranking of the 10th best player of all-time by Sporting News Magazine.  Objectively it'd be hard to rank him in the top ten in just the history of Yankee players. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gerhig, Derek Jeter, Reggie Jackson, Yogi Berra (similar career numbers but a catcher which is the harderst defensive position and normally not counted on for offense) Alex Rodriguez (I know, steroids), Dave Winfield (you laugh, but he had almost 900 more hits, accumulating over 3,000, and 134 more home runs), Mariano Rivera, and Gary Sheffield (I know, not a true Yankee and possibly PED enhanced) all have better career numbers than DiMaggio .

If you remove his mystique and glamour, ignore the songs and other pop culture references, discount who he was married to, and look simply at the player and his production, you'd find a very good player that lacked the overrall career statistics to be considered in the elite players in the history of the game. I'm not saying he was a bad player at all but to recieve that much praise for below Hall of Fame or legendary statistics you have to be overrated. Remember, he isn't the Babe or Mickey, he's Larry Walker.

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