An Illustrated Life
by Dick Johnson and Glenn Stout
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THE STREAK AND THE EMERGENCE OF AN AMERICAN HERO: 1941
Dimaggio began the 1941 season not only as baseball's best active player, but perhaps as baseball's best and most complete player to that date, a characterization that is not given lightly. In his first five seasons, averaging only 137 games per year due to injuries, his seasonal average was .343, sixth best all-time, with 33 home runs, 138 RBI, 123 runs scored, 194 hits, 12 triples, 34 doubles, 52 walks, and only 29 strikeouts. On average, in every game he played he was on base twice, collected three total bases, scored a run and knocked one in. His total of 168 home runs already placed him among the top-twenty list all-time. If he didn't hit for the average of Cobb or the power of Ruth, his combined achievement in both categories elicited comparisons to both.
Yet unlike Ruth and Cobb, DiMaggio was a right-handed hitter. As such, he was at a distinct disadvantage due to the predominance of right-handed pitching, and he played in a stadium that robbed him of power production. Of all other right-handed hitters, only Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx had previously demonstrated the ability to hit consistently for both a high average and power, but each had played in ballparks far more forgiving than Yankee Stadium, and both lacked the combination of other skills DiMaggio had. DiMaggio was widely acknowledged to be one of the best outfielders in baseball. His baserunning ability, despite his lack of stolen bases, was obvious.
The fact that he played for the Yankees, in the nation's media capital, ensured that those accomplishments were not overlooked. Neither were they tainted by the bluster of boosterism. The New York press was becoming almost blase about their star. What was left to say or write about Joe DiMaggio? After DiMaggio joined the Yankees the club won four straight pennants, by an average of almost 15 games, and four straight World Series, losing in the fall classic only three times in nineteen games. Even including the 1940 season, in DiMaggio's first five seasons, the Yankees' average record was a gaudy 99-53, a standard better than any five consecutive Yankee season records when the club included either Ruth, Gehrig, or both.
The performance was unprecedented in the modern era of baseball history. No player, from the moment he stepped onto the field for his first major league game, had been so proficient at the five baseball skills. Even including the Yankees' third-place finish of 1940, no team had ever been so good for so long.
To be certain, it helped that DiMaggio was surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast, but even among such luminaries as Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, Tommy Henrich, and Charlie Keller, DiMaggio's star still shone brightest. His Yankee teammates, his fans, and everyone else in baseball expected no less than the extraordinary to crack from DiMaggio's bat, gather in his glove, and flow through his golden right arm. But no one was prepared for the magic of the 1941 season, except, perhaps, DiMaggio himself. He had already been through it once before.
His achievements in 1941 would do much to create his lasting reputation. It helped that for the first time there was a challenger to DiMaggio's crown, another player whose performance and talent caused some to compare him with DiMaggio. Beginning in 1939, Boston's Ted Williams had emerged as another great, young, precocious batsman who hit for both average and power from the moment he came into the league, and Williams did so at an even younger age than DiMaggio. While Williams didn't share in the bounty of DiMaggio's other skills, he was, at the very least, in the same class as a hitter.
Beginning in the 1941 season, the careers of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio would be curiously joined, like opposite poles of a powerful magnet, around which a nation of baseball fans gathered in wonder. In comparison to the other, the skills, and sometimes the failure, of each was brought into sharper focus. The public's continuing preoccupation with each player is due in part to the other. For at no other time in the history of baseball have two such magnificent hitters starred, for so long, and as such bitter rivals, in such heated contests for pennants and personal honors. Their individual battles and those of their two teams fired the imagination of the baseball world for much of the next decade and invited endless comparisons. What if Joe had played with Dom? What if Ted had enjoyed DiMaggio's surrounding cast? What if Joe had remained healthy? What if Ted had suffered DiMaggio's injuries?
Each man performed in a ballpark that seemed ideally suited for the other, and each possessed a personality that seemed more appropriate to the other's adopted city. In New York, DiMaggio's pronounced stoicism sometimes left him taken for granted. In Boston, Williams's tempestuous nature made him the occasional object of ridicule. The Boston press salivated over DiMaggio's intangible impact on a team. Their desire even led them to boost brother Dom as his equal. The New York press reveled in Williams's "color" and would have turned him into the equal of Babe Ruth.
From DiMaggio: An Illustrated Life by Dick Johnson and Glenn Stout.
text Copyright © 1995 by Glenn Stout. Reprinted with permission.