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Baseball Analysis  John Holway



by John B Holway

To the list of unbreakable baseball records, I think we should add Willie Keeler’s 45-game hitting streak.  Even Joe DiMaggio couldn't break it. 

Joe got two egregious hit calls from New York official scorer Dan Daniel on two easy three-hop grounders to Chicago shortstop Luke Appling in games #30 and 31.  Would Joe have been given the hits                                           if his streak hadn't been on the line?  Without them, the streak would be two streaks of 29 and 25 games.  Who would remember them today?  Chuck Klein of the Phils had two 26-game streaks in 1930, and no one cares. 

A New York baseball historian, who doesn't want to be quoted by name, because he was a friend of Joe, saw the second game.  He said the ball hit Luke’s shoulder and he dropped it.  There was no hit/error sign on the scoreboard then.  “I marked it an error on my scorecard,” he says.  “It wasn't until I got home that I learned it was a hit.  I don't think he would have given it to him if the streak wasn't on the line.”

Louis Effrat of The Times called it “a lucky hit.”  Arthur Daley of The Times called it “scratch.”    Even Daniel admitted that it was “flukey.”

Before that, streaks were not big news.  Keeler, George Sisler, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and the Browns’ George McQuinn got hardly any news attention for their streaks.  The New York press made it into a media event when a New York player was involved. 

But at that point it wasn't yet a media event outside of New York.  Chicago Tribune reporter Irving Vaughn didn't even mention the streak.  If the games had been played in Chicago, would one or both of those fumbles have been ruled errors?

The practice of letting the hometown team choose the official scorer is obviously fraught with danger.  We don’t let them choose the umpires for a very good reason.

A .400 season or 61 homers is different.  A batter may get a lucky break today and a bad break tomorrow. 

Later in 1941 Williams got a controversial call as his average dwindled toward .3996.  An ump in Washington gave him a call on a bang-bang play at first, while the fans booed and the writers raised eyebrows.   (It became academic when Ted exploded on the final day.)

But in a hitting streak, there can be no bad breaks, they must all be lucky. 

Joe was a great player, but his greatness should not depend on whether Appling was given an error or not.

            Many sabrmatricians have calculated odds on Joe’s streak, but they are valid only if baseball is a computer game.  If it involves 18 men on the field, two managers, three umpires, and an official scorer, then the pure mathematical odds go out the window.

There were other instances in the streak that illustrate this.  A few days after the Appling games, Browns catcher Rick Ferrell charged that the ump was squeezing the strike zone for Joe.  True or false, we don’t know.  But it was a definite maybe.

In that same series the Yankees departed from orthodox strategy to give Joe, the fourth man due up in the final inning, a chance to bat.  (He used it to get his only hit.) 

In another game, however, in Game #57, the Yankees passed up another chance to give DiMaggio a crucial extra at bat.  Joe, hitless, was due to bat fourth in the tenth if Cleveland could score three runs and tie the game.  They almost did.

The Indians led off with a triple to right-center, but a great throw held the runner on third, and he eventually was picked off base.  The papers don’t say who made the throw.  It might have been Tommy Henrich.  Or even Joe himself.  Tommy can’t recall.          

When I asked Joe if he remembered, he sent back my SASE with one word scrawled across the top: “No.”

A great relief job by Johnny Murphy ended the Indians’ -- and Joe’s – hope.

“It would have been easy for us to maneuver the ball [and let them tie it], and no one would have suspected,” Henrich said. “If you want to write about the integrity of baseball, write about that game.”





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