“All I want out of life,” Ted Williams is said to have said, “is for people to say when I walk down the street, ‘There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.’ ” What, I wondered, did Joe DiMaggio want? Apparently he was willing to settle for the unofficial title of the Greatest Living Ballplayer. If so, both Ted and Joe got what they wanted, or at least something close to it.
Both Ted Williams (San Diego area) and Joe DiMaggio (San Francisco Bay area) were Californians, among the first great Far Western ballplayers. They were the two greatest everyday players in the game from the late ’30s to 1950. DiMaggio—cool, aloof, controlled, and dignified—was often referred to as “the Cary Grant of baseball,” though considering his shyness and taciturnity, Gary Cooper probably would have made a more appropriate comparison. Ted Williams—taller and rangier than Joe, open and volatile—was more like John Wayne, though given their respective war records, it would be fairer to say more like the characters Wayne played. They were friendly competitors, the greatest stars of the oldest and most bitter rivals in American professional sports. The answer to the question “Who was the most valuable?” might well be an answer to the question “Who was the greatest player of all time?”
What do four decades of hindsight tell us about their value? For one thing, there was never any doubt that DiMaggio was the superior all-around player. Williams worked himself into a capable fielder and base runner, but DiMaggio was clearly so much better in these areas that there was no need for comparison. The real question is, “Was Williams so superior to DiMaggio as a hitter that it made other areas of play irrelevant?”
Both men lost a large chunk of their careers to wars and injuries. Because Williams played the equivalent of four more full seasons than DiMaggio, a comparison of their career stats isn’t fair. But let’s look at their 10 best seasons (for Joe, 1936-’42, and 1947-’49; for Ted from 1939-’42, ’46-’49, and ’57-’58):
At their peak, DiMaggio and Williams don’t appear so far apart as many fans would imagine. Ted, injury-prone though he was, was still more durable than Joe D. and played nearly 100 more games in his peak seasons. Williams had more doubles, home runs, and, surprisingly, because Ted was a slower base runner, more runs scored. DiMaggio had more triples and—even though Williams played in so many more games—more RBIs.
DiMaggio’s strikeout total is truly amazing. He may have been the hardest to whiff of all the great sluggers in baseball history. But the real difference between them is Williams’s incredible walks total.
But all of this doesn’t take into account how much their home ballparks, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, affected their hitting. It’s long been an adage of baseball analysts that the best gauge of performance for a team or an individual player is how they perform on the road—i.e., in other ballparks. When we look at DiMaggio and Williams outside of their home fields over the course of their careers, they look quite a bit different. (This comparison allows DiMaggio his 16 games a season in Fenway Park, the league’s best hitters’ park, but it also allows Williams 16 games in Yankee Stadium, a good ballpark for left-handed power hitters. Of course, Williams would have had to face the superior Yankee pitching while batting in Yankee Stadium.) Their careers on the road:
Outside of Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio looks even greater. At home, DiMaggio’s career average was .315, and he hit 65 fewer home runs than in other American League ballparks (even more than today, Yankee Stadium’s left-center field was the place where, for right-handed hitters, extra base hits went to die).
It’s obvious that in most “quantity” stats—such as RBI, runs, and the road—DiMaggio would have been comparable or superior to Williams if they had played in the same number of games (though it must also be admitted that on the whole DiMaggio hit in a stronger batting order than Williams). As far as their “quality” numbers such as batting, slugging, and on-base average, DiMaggio gets closer to the road version of Williams—but he still can’t catch him.
In addition to having greater power, Splinter walked nearly 600 more times on the road than Clipper. No matter how you cut it, no matter how much of an edge you give DiMaggio in the field and on the bases, there’s simply no objective reason for believing that Joe DiMaggio’s worth in net runs was greater than Ted Williams’s.
So, if the Yankees could have traded DiMaggio for Williams early in their careers, they should have done so, right? Well, you make the deal if you want. I wouldn’t. One of the most important things to know about statistics is exactly how far they can take you in interpreting a player’s value. Joe DiMaggio played for just 13 seasons, in which time his team won 10 pennants and nine World Series. This is the most remarkable record of team success in baseball and one of the most remarkable in all of sports, and by far the biggest reason for the success of the Yankees was DiMaggio. Read every account you can find about DiMaggio’s life and career, and regardless of what they have to say about DiMaggio personally, you won’t find a negative word about his ability to lead a team.
What you’ll see is quotes like, “With Dage”—the Dago—”we always felt like we were gonna win.” And with the Dage, they nearly always did.
Maybe it was all in their heads, but were the results any less real for that? As Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis says in Bull Durham, “If they think that’s the reason they’re winning, then that’s the reason they are winning.” Some men, like Ted Williams, inspire awe; others, like DiMaggio, inspire confidence. Ask the people who have been there: Confidence wins more pennants.