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The Heavyweight Champ of Baseball (part 3 and 1/2)

April 11, 2020

In the middle of this longish, detail-filled project, I needed to look up the date Joe DiMaggio joined the armed forces, so I pulled my copy of Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio:The Hero’s Life off my shelf and, as is the wont of every writer ever in the middle of a time-consuming project, I decided to spend a little time reading for pleasure. In chapter 11, dedicated to the 1947 season, Cramer asserts a few stats about DiMaggio that seemed a little suspicious to me.


I know I’ve slagged on this biography before—I remember quoting from its front-cover blurb calling it "meticulously researched" and showing a few spots less than meticulous—and I really wasn’t looking for trouble this time, just a few minutes of goofing-off time. But then I read this passage:


Around the All-Star break, Joe hit safely in twenty-five of twenty-seven games. In one three-week stretch, he averaged .493. The Pinstripes took over first place in mid-June—and they didn’t just rest there. From June 19 to July 17, DiMaggio’s Yankees won nineteen straight.


Can you find the detail that set my Spidey sense a-twitchin’? I’ll give you a second.


Turned out there were two things wrong here, and I was twitching about the lesser of the two.


The lesser one was the nineteen straight wins between June 19 and July 17.  Only nineteen games played in twenty-eight days? Sure, the All-Star break occurred during this stretch, but still…. As it happens, this error was probably a typo—the nineteen wins came between June 29 and July 17, which makes more sense, nineteen games in nineteen days, with the All-Star break in there. (The Yankees played seven doubleheaders in the 19 games, if you’re wondering, including back-to-back doubleheaders on the 12th and 13th.) But the more significant error was in the "three-week stretch, he averaged .493."


Pretty good hitting, right? I mean, it’s a little cherry-picked—for a career .325 batter, I’d imagine there are often three-week stretches where he has to whack the hell out of the ball, and also three-week stretches where he can’t put two hits together, but that fabulous .493 average over three weeks still seems like pretty fair country hitting, doesn’t it?


Never happened. Never came close to happening.


First place, 1947 wasn’t one of Joe D.’s statistically dominant years—he was good, don’t get me wrong (he won the MVP), but his slash numbers of .315/20/97 don’t hold a Yahrzeit candle to his best years. Baseball-reference doesn’t even put it in his top ten seasons of WAR (and Joe D. only played 13 seasons). That .315 figure was a distant sixth to Ted Williams’ .343, so that period of batting an other-worldly .493 for three weeks really sticks out.


When I searched his daily log for 1947 looking for that three-week period, I never even found a place to start looking. DiMaggio started the 1947 season cold, batting below .200 into early May, so I started looking for when he started heating up, but he only got as high as .368 when his average started sinking again. That .368 was on June 3, so going back three weeks gives him a .436 average between May 13th and June 3rd—impressive but not quite .493.


After that high-water mark on June 3rd, his average slowly sank to .315, so there were no stretches in there where he could have possibly hit anything like .493 for a three-week period. (Is there? I can’t imagine how there could be, so I didn’t "meticulously" check out every single three-week period throughout the 1947 season. If his season’s average rose along the way, it was only by twenty points before falling again, so I couldn’t find any places to start my search.)


The closest I could find was the 27-game period between June 28th and July 24th two days shy of four weeks) when his average briefly rose by twenty points. In that stretch, he batted .394.


Did Cramer misread .394 for .493? Or misremember it? That’s my guess.


It’s a pretty big bobble, as these small things go. As I’ve written before, it seems invariable that when a writer screws up a fact, particularly a cherry-picked stat like this one, it’s always in the direction of aggrandizing, never diminishing, his subject.


And maybe this is just a streak that I’m on, or maybe it’s confirmation bias, but I swear every time I’ve read something in the past few years and thought "Hmmm? Can that be right?" I found out "No, it isn’t right. It’s totally bogus," which makes me wonder about all the times I sleepily read some stats and took for granted their accuracy. Caveat lector.


COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

They taught me in accounting that if the difference between two numbers that should be the same is divisible by 9, check for transposed numbers. That may have happened here.
8:18 PM Apr 14th
Steven Goldleaf
18hippo--the difference, I find, is that daily reporting must be fact-checked and proofread within a few hours, sometimes minutes, of printing, where books have a longer time frame, and extensive copy-editing is budgeted in. As a copy-editor of many books, I promise you I would have routinely written in the margin, next to "three weeks, he hit .493" the query "AU: which 3 weeks?" without even looking it up myself. Either he had slobs doing the copyediting, or he had the clout to overrule them with the book's publisher. There's no excuse for this sloppiness, as there sometimes is in daily reporting.​
7:57 AM Apr 13th
Cramer also wrote that Babe Dahlgren "was much better than competent at first" replacing Lou Gehrig for the 1939 Yankees. Actually, not only was Dahlgren the worst regular on that team, he was by far the worst first baseman in the American League, if not all of baseball. A "competent" first baseman would have added 4-5 wins to the 106-45 Yanks, and a robust Gehrig (or Foxx or Greenberg) would have added 8-9 wins, at which point the '39 Yanks overtake the '27 Yanks as The Greatest Team Ever.
12:17 PM Apr 12th
Much like errors in news reporting. Over the years I've read perhaps six newspaper articles about legal matters that I had personal knowledge of, and EVERY single article had at least one "fact" dead wrong. Makes me wonder about all the reporting on things I don't have direct information about.
10:45 AM Apr 12th
Any article that lights a Yahrzeit candle gets me to sit Shiva.
8:31 PM Apr 11th
I’ve seen obvious errors in some books I’ve read on things I do know something about. It does make one wonder how many times we accept what we read and how often it could be wrong.
3:09 PM Apr 11th
I forget where Bill, years ago, offered a long, righteously angry rant about the careless factual errors in David Halberstam's SUMMER OF 49. Bill concluded by saying something to the effect of "It's so irritating to see a supposedly great journalist acting as though accuracy doesn't matter in a book like this because, after all, it's ONLY baseball!" Sounds as though this may be another example of the same (probably unconscious) arrogance and condescension on the part of a writer who normally covers "serious" topics like politics.
2:53 PM Apr 11th
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