Monday, November 12, 2007

Joltin' Joe and the Streak (*?)

In the October issue of Canada's best magazine, The Walrus (think The New Yorker meets Harper's) David Robbeson raises an intriguing question: is it possible that Joe DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak might deserve an asterisk, or at least some skepticism. The most damning criticism: On more than one occasion DiMaggio maintained the hit streak as the result of the official scorer judging a play that could have been ruled an error as a hit. The problem is that the official scorer practically worshipped DiMaggio, was a good friend of him and several other players, and served as a de facto house publicist for the Yankees.
Baseball, more than most sports, reflects the times in which it is played. Rules change, ethics shift, and one era’s decisions become another’s poor judgment. Sometimes the judgments of the day are merely questionable; often they’re exercises in hypocrisy. If, in an age when Barry Bonds, a seven-time mvp, can be demonized strongly enough to dull the lustre of the all-time home run record, it seems only fair to apply the same kind of critical scrutiny back through the ages, to re-examine the “great” feats of yesteryear.

One can choose to believe that Joe DiMaggio ran the equivalent of a nine-second 100-metre dash in 1941. But to do so one must neglect the fact that his race was timed not by an impartial third party, but by a friend of his — an admirer, a co-worker — and that it took place at a time when America badly needed heroes. Was the streak the most singular sustained accomplishment in the history of sport or the work of a collective imagination seeking a new mythology?
This is one of those cases that we can never solve completely. But it just should remind us that we are on a slippery slope when we start trying to invoke asterisks for modern-day records, or when we privilege the past over the present.


Ken said...

I couldn't agree more. Whether we choose to accept Bonds as a personal hero or not is a matter for us to decide. To purely invalidate any of his achievements, on the other hand, is wrong. Personally, I believe he is a drug cheat. And so his place in the pantheon of greats should be more strongly questioned - but that isn't to wipe out his statistics. Merely, it reflects a need in sporting matters to have a slightly more solid base than statistics on which to evaluate ability.

But that's a long way round to my main point, which is about the fact that Babe Ruth was the beneficiary of organised racism. You often hear sports writers claim that we cannot compare Negro League players like for like with Major Leaguers of the era, because 'we don't know what they would have done in the big leagues', or words to that effect. Yet the National and American leagues were just as easily tainted by the same criteria.

Sure, debating whether Ruth or Bonds were better players is a fun bar room debate. But let's not use misleading statistics that hide what they profess to show as the sole arbiter of that.

Steve Dunkley said...

This is very true. Dr W G Grace's success as a player was very much down to the fact that other players, umpires and scorers alike were scared to death of him and his temper. Such was his reputation that he ignored rulings he didn't like and continued playing.