Archive for March, 2011

Shamelessly Ripping Off Last Year

March 31, 2011

For opening day last year, I quoted something. Having nothing better to say this season, I shamelessly offer it again:

“For now the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of pruning is come; and the song of the turtledove is hear in our land.” (Song of Songs 2:11-12. JPSV)

PLAY BALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

My 10 Best Center Fielders

March 30, 2011

Now that I’ve made up my mind about who I think are the top ten center fielders, I’ll present the list in a moment. I thought about it, read over comments on my question about the “tenth man,” and decided on a list. I’m putting it down in alphabetical order, not in order of 1-10:

Richie Ashburn, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Jim Edmonds, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Kirby Puckett, Duke Snider, Tris Speaker.

Now, of course, the usual commentary is going to show its ugly head. First, I left out all Negro League players who spent the bulk of their careers in the Negro Leagues (guys like Oscar Charleston). I just don’t think there is enough information available for analysis to compare them directly with Major League players. Are some of them as good or better than the people listed? I’m sure they are, I just can’t prove it. My guess is that Charleston, and maybe Torriente and/or Bell, might make this list. Proving it is another story. I also dropped in pre-mound players. I simply think the game is too different to compare the players. I know a bunch of people have come up with statistical programs that claim to have overcome that problem. Obviously I don’t buy that. Feel free, particularly if you’ve invented one of those programs, to disagree.

You’ll notice it’s a pretty standard list. My guess is that almost anyone reading this then putting together their own list is going to have seven or eight names that are just like mine. It’s the other couple that will create the problem. So let me take a second of commentary and at least partially justify three of my picks, the three I think will create the most “Huh?” factor from readers.

Ashburn: Richie Ashburn is simply the best center fielder I ever saw (which has nothing to do with how well he hit). He had incredible range and a fine glove. He led the league in putouts nine times, in assists three times, and range 10 times. The argument is always made that he played behind a staff that threw an inordinate amount of fly balls. If you had Ashburn behind you, wouldn’t you throw a lot of fly balls too? Additionally he could hit a little. He led the league in average twice, on base percentage four times, hits three times, triples twice, walks four times, and stolen bases once. For a man who hit only 29 home runs for a career (his career high was 7 in his final season with the 1962 Mets) he has a respectable OPS of  778 (OPS+ of 111). His black ink total is 32, his gray ink is 156, both above Hall of Fame standards. I remember we didn’t see the Phillies much when I was small (they were usually terrible), but when we did it was Ashburn you were drawn to. I’ve always been a little surprised he took as long to make the Hall of Fame as he did.

Puckett: I’m amazed at how quickly Kirby Puckett has disappeared from our conciousness. OK, I know he’s dead, but he seemed to be fading already by the time he died. His post baseball career was a tragedy of weight gain, vision problems, and allegations of abuse. It seems he just didn’t know what to do with himself when the thing that defined him, his baseball career, was over. But let me remind you how terrific he was. The greatest catch of the last 25 years may have been in game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Frankly, I didn’t think short-legged, chubby Kirby Puckett could run that far that fast. He was a very good center fielder. Three times he led the league in both assists and putouts by a center fielder and twice in range. He hit well, winning a batting title, leading the league in hits four times, total bases twice, and in RBIs once. His OPS is 837 (OPS+ of 124). The Minnesota Twins have won exactly two World Series’ ever. Puckett hit third on both teams.

Edmonds: Obviously, based on the last post I made, he was the person I thought longest and hardest about (and just as obviously Andruw Jones is 11th on this list). I finally chose him based on his fielding and his overall hitting  stats. I decided that both he and Jones have differences, but that they are pretty much miniscule. Even at strange stats like gray ink and Hall of Fame standards they end up a wash (Edmonds leads in gray, Jones in HoF standards). The key difference to me was the OPS+ stat where Edmonds leads 132 to 111 (which is quite a difference). I finally decided if Ashburn gets in at 111, then Edmonds, who has a higher number, should be in too.

So there’s the list. I’m sorry to have had to leave out Earl Averill, Earle Combs, Hack Wilson and an entire group of good center fielders, but somebody had to be left out. I especially hate having to leave out Vada Pinson, who I thought was great when I was much younger. I also have some problems with including either Edmonds or Jones (or even Griffey for that matter). I don’t like to put in players who are still active or who have just retired. We have absolutely no perspective yet on them and that always worries me. I’m not sure how, ten years from now, their careers will stack up, but to leave them off smacks of fogeyism. You know fogeyism, don’t you? It usually starts with a comment along the following lines, “Heck, everyone was better when I was a kid. These guys couldn’t hold Paul Blair’s glove.” Most of us are probably guilty of it from time to time. Hopefully I haven’t been in this case.

 Thoughts appreciated, but remember to be kind in your comments. This is a family site. 🙂

Picking the Tenth Man

March 28, 2011

Jim Edmonds

One of the things I intended to do with my series on center fielders was to drop a list of my ten all-time best center fielders. Well, you’ll note it isn’t around. There’s a reason for that and it involves the tenth man.

It took almost no time in producing a list of nine players that I thought worked as nine of the top ten center fielders ever. In fact, it was, at least to me, rather easy. I, as usual, excluded players like Oscar Charleston who played in the Negro Leagues and guys like King Kelly who played back when baseball was two words. But I still ran into a problem, who’s number ten? Or to be more precise who’s the tenth man without reference to whether he’s number ten or not?

It all revolves around a choice between Jim Edmonds and Andruw Jones. Both were terrific center fielders. Jones glided to the ball and Edmonds threw himself at it. Both hit well. Joe DiMaggio they weren’t, but they hit well. Jones had more pop, but there was a small steroid cloud on his horizon when he went over 50 home runs. He played for more winners, but he had a better team around him. Edmonds only won it all once, exactly the same number of times as Jones. I don’t know that either was ever considered the best player on his team (well, maybe Jones the year he popped 50), but both were major contributors to their team’s success. I looked at their sabermetric numbers. They’re a mixed bag.

So I’m not doing a list until I decide which I want. I’ll read your opinions if you want to give them, but I don’t promise to take your advice. How’s that for honesty?

Andruw Jones

Having Fun

March 25, 2011

Amazon's image of the But Didn't We Have Fun? cover

Just finished a book I’d never read before. It’s titled But Didn’t We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1970 by Peter Morris (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 2008). This is the paperback version. I haven’t done a book review in a while, so it’s time.

This is not a book of play-by-play. Nor is it a book about players. It is more about the early evolution of the game. There are chapters on equipment, customs and rituals, civic pride, how the clubs worked and why people joined them. There’s even a bit on how the initial baseballs were made. It is utterly fascinating, but is not about games themselves.

It’s a book I wish I’d read prior to posting all that 1850s and 1860s stuff I did a couple of months ago. I might have changed a few things. I see that he does agree with me on some things (like what the Knickerbocker Rules are) and on others he doesn’t (he downplays the Lip Pike Case, which I did a post on over a year ago). Morris has written a handful of other works, most notably, at least to me, A Game of Inches. So the man is already established as knowledgable about baseball. He writes pretty well and the book has lots of illustrations. Most are on-line, and some you’ve seen here.

The paperback version costs $16.95 and I picked it up at my local Barnes & Noble. It was worth the money.

Clank

March 23, 2011

This is not a pretty story. It is the story of a good player, a player who was, in his time, one of the best at his position. For the most part his teammates liked him. He was well-respected. Then he made an error, actually three of them, and he went to his grave known among a lot of fans for one inning of one game. Unfortunately for Willie Davis it was a World Series game.

In 1961 Davis became the regular center fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was no Duke Snider, but he was pretty good. More known for his glove than his bat, he roamed the outfield with LA through 1973. He made some errors, but had great range. He led the league in putouts once and was in the top three in assists twice. He hit well enough to bat second for much of his career, had little power, but good speed and was perfect for hitting behind Maury Wills. He helped the Dodgers to World Series wins in 1963 and 1965.

In 1966 the Dodgers got back to the World Series, playing Hank Bauer’s Baltimore Orioles. They lost game one, but with Sandy Koufax on the mound for game two, there was a reasonable chance at evening the Series. Through four innings neither team scored, then Boog Powell led off the fifth with a single. After a foul out, Paul Blair lifted a fly to center. The next sound you heard was “clank.” That’s the sound of a baseball hitting an iron glove. Davis lost the ball in the sun, couldn’t get good leather on it and the ball dropped in for a two-base error, Powell heading to third. So far, no harm. That brought up Andy Etchebarren who hit another fly to center. “Clank.” Davis dropped it, Powell scored. Then to compound the error, Davis picked up the ball and tossed it toward third base. It sailed. No, it didn’t sail, it flew. It flew all the way across the Milky Way. No one was going to catch it and Blair trotted home with Etchebarren to third. After a second out, Luis Aparicio hit a clean double to end the scoring with three unearned runs. The Orioles scored one more run off Koufax and another later in the game while the Dodgers were shut out by Jim Palmer. The team never recovered from the three consecutive errors and were swept in the Series. The three errors on two hit balls is still a World Series record. For your information, Davis had one more play in the game. He recorded the out.

Davis went on to have several more fine years in LA, hitting over .300 a couple of times after they lowered the mound, but he was always known for the errors. Koufax never blamed him, neither did the team. The fans were another story. By the end, many forgot it because he was too good a player to hold it against him forever and as luck would have it the game was Koufax’s last (and became much more famous for that than for Davis’ clanking). But others never forgot and there were some “boo”-birds in the stands on old-timers day.  When he died in 2010, it came up, but wasn’t the centerpiece of most of the articles about him. I guess that’s all Davis might have asked.

Willie Davis

Power Center

March 21, 2011

I saw that the Hall of Fame is honoring the guy who wrote “Talkin’ Baseball” at this year’s Cooperstown festivities. The line from it that everyone knows is “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.” All were center fielders and as I’ve been looking through information on the position, I’ve discovered just how extraordinary they were.

What came to my attention is how few major power hitters occupy center field as their primary position. Having three at one time is really very odd. Let me show you a particular stat that points that out. I remembered that Joe DiMaggio had 361 home runs. So I decided to make him the bottom of my list of center fielders with power. When I looked over the list of home run hitters in order, I found DiMaggio was 71st, which worked for a good base after all. It would have been better it he was 75th, but 71 will work. Obviously if I run the list longer, the numbers will change, but a cursory look all the way to 100 didn’t seem to make that much difference (and I should stress “cursory” in that sentence).

What I noticed is that there are less center fielders on the list than either of the other outfield positions. Now the usual caveats. As outfielders can sometimes be interchangeable, especially as stat types tend to lump them together as “outfielders” rather than “left fielders” or either of the others (and I’ve also noticed that the more modern the source, the less common this is, which I think is good), I went to  Baseball Reference.com to determine which outfield position guys like Gary Sheffield actually played most often (right in his case). I also took the Hall of Fame listing to determine a player’s primary position. The Hall lists Willie Stargell as a “left fielder” rather than a “first baseman” so Willie becomes one of the people I looked at. Finally I realize not all the people in the top 71 played all games at one position, so that they hit home runs at other positions rather than their primary position. For instance both Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial spent significant time at first base (as, obviously, did Stargell). So this is not a list to determine who hit the most homers while in center or anything like that.

Here’s what I found. Of the top 71 home runs hitters in Major League history, 17 were primary right fielders (I’m not listing them all, but they run from Hank Aaron to Rocky Colavito), 13 were primary left fielders (from Barry Bonds to Ralph Kiner), and only eight were in center. Here I’ll list them all in order of home runs: Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Andruw Jones, Duke Snider, Dale Murphy, Jim Edmonds, Joe DiMaggio.

A few observations:

1. It seems big league baseball really does like the old “defense up the middle, power at the corners” idea. I heard that all the way back in Little League. The idea is that if you have solid defense up the middle (shortstop, 2nd base, center field) then you can get your power from the corner players (1st base,  3rd base, left and right field). From the info above 24% of the 71 best power hitters played right field, 18% played left field, and 11% played center field as their primary position. The drop from 24% to 11% is noticeable. I’m not saying that you can’t play center if you hit for power, but that the power hitters tend to cluster towards the edges. If you think about it you probably already knew that intuitively.

2. Those numbers hold even if you move the base to another arbitrary position, like 400 home runs. Then you get 11 right fielders, nine left fielders, and five center fielders (losing Murphy, Edmonds, and DiMaggio).

3. Those numbers and percentage will change as soon as the opening of the 2011 season. Just a few men hitting just a few home runs will drop DiMaggio further down the all-time list and change things. I briefly looked over the top 100 and it appears it won’t add an inordinate number of center fielders, so the general trend will remain the same (more or less).

4. They tend to clump. Mays, Mantle, Snider, and DiMaggio all have careers that overlap. Having said that, both Mays’ and Mantle’s rookie year is DiMaggio’s last, so only Snider overlaps DiMaggio by more than one year. Of course Mays , Mantle, and Snider play a decade together. Griffey, Jones, and Edmonds are also contemporaries.  And Murphy actually overlaps Griffey and Edmonds (although his final season is Edmonds rookie campaign).

5. On a personal note. I hadn’t realized that Andruw Jones was already fourth on the list of home runs among primary center fielders. I’ve never considered him a truly elite player. He was a great center fielder, but I guess I had managed to more or less ignore his hitting contributions. Silly me.

I don’t think the stats above are all that significant in the long list of baseball information. I merely find them interesting and am sure that if I were to change the criteria it would change the info. For instance I left out Earl Averill, who didn’t make the top 71 home runs hitters, but was a significant power hitter in the 1930s.  They do remind me just how lucky we were to have Mays, Mantle, and Snider playing at the same time.

Play Like a Girl

March 18, 2011

Helen Callaghan

When I was young, there were three things you never wanted to hear about your baseball talent: 1. “You throw like a girl,” 2.”You hit like a girl,”and 3. “You play like a girl.” Yeah, it’s a sexist epithet, but at eight what did I, or any of my buddies, know about sexism? In keeping with the center fielders theme, here’s some thoughts on Helen Callaghan who played like a girl, a really talented girl.

Helen Callaghan was born in Canada and played both baseball and softball. In the 1940s, with wartime shortages of players, Phil Wrigley, owner of the Cubs, decided to set up a women’s professional league. Over the years it’s become most famous for the movies “A League of Their Own.” It’s a good flick, but historically it’s garbage. The movie shows Racine winning the championship, which it did, but it defeated Kenosha (not Rockford as in the movie). Sorry, team, but it’s true that Hollywood makes it up as it goes along sometimes (What? You didn’t know?). Movies that proport to give a “true” view of an historical event frequently don’t, so there’s no shame in doing the same with women’s baseball, if you’re Hollywood. Besides baseball already has a whole series of myths, so what’s one more? Callaghan and her sister, however, were not myths. Helen Callaghan got to the league in 1944, playing center field for Minneapolis. They were terrible, she was good. She was second in the league in hitting (.287) and third in stolen bases with 112. That indicates there were not a lot of strong armed catchers in the league (they threw like a girl?).

1944 Minneapolis Millerettes (Callaghan is second from right on the front row)

In 1945, Minneapolis shifted the franchise to Fort Wayne, became the Daisies, and Calaghan led the league in average (.299), home runs (3), and total bases (156). She led the team to the league finals, where they lost to Rockford (without either Gena Davis or Madonna). In 1946 she had a down year, was sick in 1947, pregnant for most of 1948 (she played a handful of games). She was back for one final year in 1949, then retired. Her career numbers are not complete, but the best I could find on her give the following stats: a batting average of .257 in 388 games with 7 home runs and 85 RBIs. She stole 354 bases (almost one per game), scored 249 runs, with 225 walks, and 161 strikeouts. If those numbers are complete, her OBP is .359 with a .319 slugging percentage, making on OPS of .678. Not bad for a  girl (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

She had several children, including Casey Candaele who got to the big leagues in 1986 and hung around to 1997. Considering his genes I guess that means he played like a girl. Momma out hit him by seven points, but he had more home runs. She got to see him play before dying of breast cancer in 1992. To this day they remain the only mother/son combination to play professional baseball at the highest level available to them.

One of the things I’ve been typing a lot recently is a sentence that goes something like “It’s really hard to evaluate…”. Maybe that’s because I’m looking at obscure things. But it’s true of Callaghan and the entire women’s league. First, there’s the obvious question of physical differences (no male palyer is going to lose part of a  season to pregnancy, for instance). Then there’s the question of quality of competition. There are also problems with length of season and field conditions. I know nothing about the playingfields except some very rudimentary information so can’t speak to how that effected play. So how good were women like Callaghan? As I’ve also been typing a lot recently, I’m not sure. Could some of them made the minor leagues? My guess is that the very best could have gotten into the minors. At what level is another question. As far as the big leagues go maybe the absolute cream of the crop player like Joanne Weaver might have managed a few games, but even that seems a stretch, although during World War II playing levels were way down. A speedy outfielder with a good batting eye might even be a better possibility.

Whatever the answer to those questions, I’m glad the women got a chance to play. It certainly gave people like me a chance to write about something I wouldn’t normally write about. It made a pretty good movie, giving us the great “no crying in baseball” line. And, although I’ve not seen it personally, I understand it makes a pretty good exhibit at the Hall of Fame.

RIP “The Octopus”

March 17, 2011

Marty Marion, 1946

Just saw that old-time player Marty Marion died at age 93. Nicknamed both “The Octopus” and “Slats”,  he was the shortstop on the St. Louis Cardinals teams that won four pennants in the 1940’s (1942, ’43, ’44, and ’46) and three World Series (1942, ’44, and ’46). He was chosen National League MVP in 1944, joined Stan Musial as the only member of that team to pick up an MVP in the era. He was considered one of the premier shortstops of his era. RIP, “Slats.”

Legacy

March 16, 2011

Yankee Stadium 1930s configuration

There are some positions that are just simply the glamour spots for a team. For the Giants, as evidenced by their latest championship and their long history of great pitchers, it’s the mound. For the Red Sox it’s left field.  Both teams have produced an inordinate number of high quality players at the position. For the Yankees, that position is, with apologies to catchers and second base, center field.

The Yankees were formed in Baltimore in 1901 and shifted to New York in 1903. The “Yankees” team moniker came during the teens. They were a team that was sporadically competitive prior to 1920 and the arrival of Babe Ruth. Afterwards they were the dominant franchise. Whether the team was winning or losing, they have usually had a fine center fielder since. the key word there is “usually.”

Way back in 1921 when it all began, the center fielder was the immortal Elmer Miller (that’s OK, I never heard of him either). Whitey Witt came in ’22. Not a bad player but certainly not the reason they were winning (That Ruth kid had something to do with it). He stayed through 1925, hit .287 with no power and not much speed. He gave way to Earle Combs, who was a revelation in center. Combs could hit (.325), had doubles power (309), and speed. He didn’t steal a lot of bases (with Ruth and Gehrig hitting behind you, would you?), but the papers of the time indicate he was adept at going from first to third on a good single and coming home from second on a clean base hit to the outfield. And of course he was on base quite a bit (OBP of .397, which ain’t bad, but not all that great either. He never finished higher than 5th in OBP.) for Ruth and Gehrig to drive home. He stayed through 1935 and eventually made the Hall of Fame. His successor was Joe DiMaggio who  stayed in center through 1951 and was replaced by Mickey Mantle in 1952. Mantle remained a fixture in New York through 1968.

Now I don’t mean to imply that Combs, DiMaggio, and Mantle played every game in center between 1925 and 1968. Obviously they missed games, and DiMaggio lost three years to World War II. Additionally, Mantle moved to first base in the last two years. But as a rule for the entire period a Hall of Famer stood in center field for New York. That’s not a unique event. Take a look at Boston left fielders from Ted Williams through Jim Rice, but the Yankees center fielders played on winners year after year.

Bobby Murcer replaced Mantle (after running Joe Pepitone and Bill Robinson out there for a couple of years). He’s generally overlooked as a Yankees center fielder, but he was pretty good. He wasn’t DiMaggio or Mantle, but he may have been Combs. There have been a lot of really terrific underrated players in baseball history. Murcer is in the list and, in my opinion, toward the top. He lasted through 1974 then came back in 1979 (although not as the regular center fielder). He was also the last of the power hitters who spent significant time out in center.

The rest of the 1970s and 1980s saw New York send a lot of men to center. They won two World Series titles with Mickey Rivers out there. But as a rule guys like Jerry Mumphrey and Ruppert Jones weren’t anything to write home about. They did try Rickey Henderson in center in the mid to late 1980s. As a center fielder Rickey Henderson made left fielder Rickey Henderson look like Roberto Clemente (Henderson led the league in errors in 1985.). But at least he could track down the ball. All the searching for a quality center fielder changed when Bernie Williams showed up. He gave New York a fine center fielder. He could hit, run, play the field. He won a  batting title and hit clean up on four World Series winners. Is he a Hall of Famer? We’ll find out in a couple of years.

I know that’s not a  comprehensive list of Yankees center fielders, not even since 1921, but what I wanted to show was a long and sustained period of quality play at one position. And the Yankees center fielders certainly, despite some hiccups, did that.

Baseball’s Aristocrat

March 14, 2011

Joe DiMaggio and friend (I should have such a friend)

I’m always torn when it comes to aristocracy. I appreciate the elegance and class. On the other hand, I despise the snobbery and air of entitlement. 

Those who saw him play agree that Joe DiMaggio personified grace. They agree he did things regular players couldn’t. Many of them are convinced he was the greatest ever. Although I was alive while DiMaggio played, I don’t recall ever hearing a radio broadcast when he played or saw him on TV.  So I don’t know these things from personal experience. But the way he played, the way he carried himself, made DiMaggio baseball’s greatest aristocrat.

After time in the minors, DiMaggio got to New York in 1936. He became an instant starter and in many ways the heir to Babe Ruth. He hit third in front of Lou Gehrig, he played the outfield (although not the same position), he hit for power, he scored a lot of runs, he drove in more. His arrival coincided with the first of four consecutive Yankees pennants and four consecutive World Series triumphs. Losing the AL pennant in 1940 to Detroit, the Yankees bounced back in 1941, highlighted by DiMaggio’s famous 56 game hitting streak. They won the Series in 1941, lost in 1942, then DiMaggio went to war.

He lost all of 1943, ’44, and ’45 to World War II. He returned in 1946, had something like a down season, then roared back for typical DiMaggio seasons in 1947 and 1948. In 1949 came the foot injury. He had one more fine year in 1950, then closed out his career in 1951. He made the Hall of Fame in 1955. His numbers look good. He hit .325, slugged .579, and had an on base percentage of .398 for an OPS of 977 (OPS + of 155). He ended up with 2214 hits, 3948 total bases, 361 home runs, 389 doubles, 1390 runs, 1537 RBIs, 790 walks, and 369 strikeouts. His fielding percentage was .978.

When most people talk about DiMaggio they either begin with his marriage or with the number 56. Me? I’d like to begin with four other numbers: ten, thirteen,  ten again, and nine. Joe DiMaggio played thirteen seasons between 1936 and 1951 (the thirteen). In those thirteen seasons  he played in ten World Series’ (the first of the tens). Nobody, not Ruth, not Gehrig, has that kind of record. Even Yogi Berra doesn’t do that (He’s fourteen of nineteen.). Want the other numbers? In ten World Series’ (the other ten) the Yankees win nine (the nine). If you’re interested, the loss is to St. Louis in 1942. 

All that is impressive to me. Now I know that what I’m looking at is really a team stat, but in this case that’s not that great a problem. Except for 1936 and 1937 (and maybe 1938) it’s DiMaggio’s team. He is the unquestioned finest player on the team once Lou Gehrig’s career wanes in 1938 (and ends in 1939). So I’ll give DiMaggio the impressive team numbers.

Having said all that, he wasn’t a particularly great World Series player. He hit .271 (high of .346 in 1936), slugged.422, never hit more than two home runs in a Series (1947) and never knocked in more than five runs (1951). Those aren’t bad numbers, but do they strike you as DiMaggio-like? His greatness in many ways lies in getting New York through the regular season. Once they get to the Series, the Yankees had to rely on someone else. They had no World Series MVP award when he played, but had they and had I a vote, I would always have voted for someone else. 

There’s nothing wrong with his regular season statistics. He led the league in hitting twice (back to back in 1939 and 1940) with a high of .381. On two occasions he won the home run title. He won two RBI crowns, two slugging titles, three MVP awards, and had that streak that everyone knows. To me his most impressive stat is that he has exactly eight (count ’em, eight) more strikeouts than home runs. Going into his final season, his home run total was actually higher (349 to 333). Nine times DiMaggio hit 25 or more home runs. In seven of those seasons he struck out less times than he homered. In 1950 it was close: 33 home runs, 33 strikeouts. The other season was his rookie campaign when he hit 29 home runs and had a career high 39 strikeouts (Hey, everyone’s entitled to a bad rookie campaign.). Think about 39 strikeouts for a career high. For some guy’s that’s a month.

There’s a lot of ink spilled about how many home runs he lost by playing in Yankee Stadium. Back in the 1930s and 1940s it was a bus ride from home to the left field fence. For his career DiMaggio hit .315 at home, .333 on the road, not all that much of a difference. He had 41% of his home runs in Yankee Stadium, which isn’t a bad percentage but isn’t great either. He did have more triples in New York, but like I said it was forever to the fence in left.

There is universal agreement that he was a great Center Fielder. You even hear the word “elegant” to describe him. His range factor is second among Hall of Fame center fielders (to Richie Ashburn). His fielding numbers are fine for his era. He only led the AL in putouts and assists once, but was regularly in the top three or four (which in an eight team league isn’t as impressive as it would be today). Unfortunately, he also led the AL in errors once (1937).

Even in retirement, the aristocrat remained. DiMaggio, unlike a lot of the rest of us, kept his weight down. He seldom, if ever, played in an old-timers game so that we saw his failing skills, he didn’t wear his old uniform in public. Even his Mr. Coffee commercials were quite, calm, dignified. Billy Mays he wasn’t. DiMaggio did carry at least one thing to an extreme that is aristocratic snobbery. In 1969 he was voted the “greatest living ballplayer”. Whether you agree or not, DiMaggio obviously loved the compliment. Ever afterwards he insisted on being introduced with that title. The problem was the increasing presence of people named Aaron, Mantle, Mays, Musial, Williams (listed alphabetical).

Joe DiMaggio is in some ways the hardest of the truly great players to define. His numbers aren’t just overwhelming, but his career is short (Sandy Koufax has the same kind of problem). His personality sometimes becomes more the story than the play (see all the fuss and feathers over his kicking the dirt in the 1947 World Series). And then there is the transcendent nature of 56.  It so dwarfs his other stats, his other accomplishments, that it pushes everything else into something akin to oblivion.  But for all that, and possibly because of all that, DiMaggio is one of the single most fascinating players to study.