The Last Magic Number in Sports

On July, 17 1941, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak came to an end.

The title of this blog comes from the book Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports by Kostya Kennedy. His book takes the reader through each game of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak at a time when America was preparing for war with Japan. Joe’s streak began on May 15, 1941 when he blooped a single to right field in a game against the White Sox. The streak ended two months later at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, in front of 67,000 cheering fans. That day Joe had 4 plate appearances. Joe walked once and hit 3 ground balls. The first ground ball was a rocket hit down the 3rd base line which was backhanded by Cleveland’s Ken Keltner throwing Joe out by a step. Joe Walked in the 4th inning. In the 7th he ripped another rocket to Keltner who threw him out again. In his final plate appearance he hit a routine grounder to the shortstop. Joe’s greatness showed when he promptly started a new hitting streak which lasted for 16 games. All told Joe produced at least one hit in 72 of his 73 games. Both his 56-game hitting streak and hitting safely in 72 out of 73 consecutive games have never been duplicated. Without Keltner’s great fielding, the consecutive game streak might have reached 73 games.

The year 1941 also marked the last time a Major League hitter batted over .400 when Ted Williams batted .406 for the season. The year 1941 witnessed two remarkable baseball feats that many baseball experts say will never happen again. The baseball writers had a tough choice for the 1941 AL MVP Award. They chose the Yankees’ DiMaggio over the Red Sox’s Williams.

In my book, Sandlot Stats Learning Statistics with Baseball, I devote Chapter 16 to the study of many different types of batting streaks. In that chapter I develop a new probability formula which uses a player’s actual batting statistics for a season to calculate his probability of duplicating any of these batting streaks. These calculated probabilities allows us to compare different batting streaks seeing which streak would be the hardest to duplicate.

The rivalry between DiMaggio and Williams also extended to batting streaks. Ted Williams possesses 2 amazing on-base streaks. He holds the record for getting on-base in 84 consecutive games (1949) and the record for getting on-base in 16 consecutive plate appearances (1957). To be credited with getting on-base a player must either get a hit, a walk or be hit by a pitch. Using my probability formula, I calculated the probability of Joe and Ted achieving their 3 streaks. DiMaggio had a 1 in 10,000 chance of achieving his 56-game hitting streak while Williams had a 1 in 10 chance of achieving his 84-game on-base streak and a 1 in 25 chance of achieving his 16-plate appearance on-base streak. Which streak was the hardest to achieve? From a probability point of view the answer is clear. Yes, Joe DiMaggio’s streak was the hardest to achieve. In fact, Ted Williams said, “I believe there isn’t a record on the books that will be tougher to break than Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.”

In Chapter 16 of my book I provide 4 lists of special baseball and softball players. The lists include the players with the longest hitting streaks in the Major Leagues, the Minor Leagues, the college baseball leagues and the college softball leagues. In the Major Leagues Pete Rose (1978) and Willie Keeler (1897) are tied for second place with 44-game hitting streaks. For the Minor Leagues, Joe Wilhoit (1919) had a 69-game hitting streak followed by would you believe Joe DiMaggio with a 61-game hitting streak in 1933 for the San Francisco Seals in the PCL.

Considering the thousands of players in the history of professional baseball, for Joe to have 2 of the 3 longest hitting streaks speaks to the greatness of Joe D.

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