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Posts Tagged ‘Joe DiMaggio’

(The following was originally published at SB*Nation’s Pinstripe Alley)

In addition to the Hot Stove, baseball warms up the winter months with Hall of Fame debate. From the time the ballot is released until the votes are counted in early January, arguments are made for and against various candidates, often with a considerable degree of disagreement and usually with some form of exaggeration. As a result, for those players on the borderline, the process can be somewhat demeaning.

This year, Bernie Williams is making his first appearance on the ballot, and judging by popular sentiment, he isn’t likely to come close to enshrinement. Although Williams’ case deserves much closer scrutiny than many seem willing to give, as a borderline candidate, there really is no right or wrong answer regarding his candidacy. With that in mind, it seems more appropriate to consider the best players who are not in the Hall of Fame instead of trying to determine which of them actually belong.

At the Baseball: Past and Present blog, Graham Womack recently completed a survey based on exactly that premise. For the second straight year, Womack polled an electorate made up of baseball writers and researchers and compiled the results into a ranking of the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. Included in this baseball version of purgatory were several players who spent most of their careers in pinstripes, prompting a further question: who are the 10 best eligible Yankees without a plaque in Cooperstown?

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Andre Ethier’s fifth inning infield single off the glove of Starlin Castro may not have gone very far, but it did get him halfway to the legendary streak of Joe DiMaggio.

After tying Wee Willie Keller's mark, DiMaggio takes some time to enjoy the moment.

By extending his hitting streak to 28 games, Ethier became only the 46th player to reach that point since DiMaggio established the record at 56 games. Since 1919, only 69 players have had hitting streaks of at least 28 games, so even if the Dodgers’ right fielder comes up empty tonight, he’ll still have placed himself in select company.

Despite being at the halfway point, Ethier is still miles away from approaching DiMaggio’s record. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other significant milestones well within his reach. The first one on the horizon is the Dodgers’ franchise record of 31, which was set by Willie Davis in 1969. Then, there’s George Sisler’s modern day record* of 41 straight games with a hit by a left handed batter. Finally, once that hurdle has been cleared, Ethier can set his sites on Pete Rose’s modern day National League record* of 44 games, which is the closest anyone has come to reaching DiMaggio’s lofty plateau.

* Wee Willie Keeler established the National League (as well as the left handed) record by “hitting ‘em where they ain’t” in 44 straight games for the Baltimore Orioles (no relation to the modern day American League team, nor the one that moved to New York to become the Yankees) to start the 1897 season. Keeler also had a hit in the last game of the 1896 season, giving him a career mark of 45 straight games with a hit.

Keeler still holds the NL record for most consecutive games with a hit.

Now that Ethier has reached a symbolic point on his journey, the outfielder’s at bats will come under increased scrutiny, and, as a result, so too will the official scorers presiding over his games.  In last night’s contest, for example, Ethier’s lone hit was aided by Castro’s inability to backhand a groundball in the shortstop hole. Had the strong armed defender fielded the ball cleanly, he might have had a chance to record the out, but the difficulty of the play made the official scorer’s decision well within reason.

If Ethier is going to make a serious run at DiMaggio, he’ll likely need a few more instances in which good fortune accompanies good hitting. After all, even Joltin’ Joe needed a break or two along the way, especially when you consider he recorded one hit in 34 of the 56 games in his streak.

Not every one-hit game was the result of luck, but during a series against the White Sox in June, good fortune smiled upon DiMaggio not once, but twice. The Yankee Clipper entered the series riding a 29-game hitting streak, but was held hitless up until what looked like his last at bat in the seventh inning.  So, when DiMaggio rolled what the New York Times called “a ground ball that was labeled an easy out” to Luke Appling, it looked like the streak was over…at least until the ball took a bad hop and bounced off the shortstop’s shoulder.

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(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeU.)

Usually, when one thinks of a podium in the Bronx, it’s there to say hello to a new million dollar acquisition. This time, however, the media hordes were assembled to say goodbye to one of the team’s all-time greats. That’s why, as Andy Pettitte answered questions about his decision to retire, the proceedings took on somewhat of a surreal feeling. After all, if Pettitte was healthy enough to pitch, capable of performing at a high level (his ERA+ of 130 was the fourth highest in his career), and greatly needed by the Yankees, why exactly was he walking away?

As expected, Pettitte’s reasons for retiring centered on his family. According to the lefty, his heart simply wasn’t into returning because the other aspects of his life were pulling on its strings. Considering that Pettitte’s heart has always been in the right place (although Yankees’ fans might not like where it is now), his reasoning was perfectly understandable. And yet, it is still hard to imagine a great player voluntary walking away from the game when he still has the ability to perform.

Andy Pettitte and wife Laura field questions at press conference announcing his retirement (Photo: Getty Images).

At the beginning of the proceedings, Jason Zillo, the Yankees director of media relations, made an interesting comment about Pettitte’s press conference being a unique event in his 15-year tenure with the team (which is almost as long as Pettitte’s). In fact, the validity of the comment extends well beyond Zillo’s time in the Bronx. Despite having scores of superstar players who spent the bulk of their careers with the team, the Yankees have not hosted many press conferences to announce the retirement of a legendary figure.

Since 1901, the Yankees have had 22 position players (minimum 1,000 games) and 10 pitchers (minimum 200 games started or 400 games) compile a WAR greater than 30 during their time in pinstripes. However, from that illustrious group, only three have had a formal press conference to say goodbye on their own terms: Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and now Andy Pettitte.

When the Yankees faced the Dodgers in the 1952 World Series, Joe DiMaggio was sitting in the bleachers instead of playing centerfield (Photo: Life)

Like Pettitte, DiMaggio had been hinting at retirement for some time before eventually making his final decision. During the course of his injury plagued career, Joltin’ Joe would often hint at walking away, but he finally formalized his intentions during the spring of 1951. Despite the dramatic announcement, not too many people expected DiMaggio to actually retire, and the doubts lingered even after he had a subpar year by his standards (OPS+ of 115 in 482 plate appearances). However, after winning the World Series against the cross-town Giants, DiMaggio again told reporters that he probably wouldn’t be back in 1952. Most people still shrugged off the statement, and even Yankees’ owner Dan Topping didn’t seem convinced, telling DiMaggio, “you might feel differently a month from now”. Almost 60 years later, Cashman would be telling Pettitte the same thing.

When baseball is no longer fun, it is no longer a game and so I’ve played my last game of ball.” – Joe DiMaggio, quoted by UP at his retirement press conference, December 11, 1951

As things turned out, DiMaggio was serious. On December 11, 1951, Joltin’ Joe assembled the media and officially retired from the game, much the same way that Pettitte did this morning. At the time, however, such an event was unheard of. “The press conference in which Joe announced his retirement was without precedent in size and confusion,” stated The Sporting News’ Dan Daniel. “The writers were far outnumbered by the newsreel, radio and TV specialists. The sandwiches, coffee and cheese cake had to be replenished thrice.”

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