Top 50 Sox Seasons #2: Ted Williams, 1941

.406/.553/.735, 1.287 OPS, 606 PA, 185 H, 147 BB, 37 HR, 120 RBI, 335 TOB, 12.3 AB/HR, 235 OPS+
All-Star starter, ML Player of the Year, MVP – 2

.406.

You know what it is. No labels. No context. You don’t even need to be a Red Sox fan or a particularly serious baseball fan. You hear it; you know it. .406. The magic number.

But 1941 was about so much more than just .406; one could say Williams was so good that year, he managed to overshadow even himself.

The story of 1941 is always written around the twin feats of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams – DiMaggio’s amazing 56-game hitting streak, Williams’ incredible .406 season, the first .400 season in 16 years and likely the last ever. That story is misleading, in that it actually devalues the amazing things Williams did in 1941.

Due to baseball’s traditional emphasis on batting average, Williams’ all-time record .553 on-base percentage was largely ignored (it remains an AL mark), and remains so. While DiMaggio generated headlines for his record hitting streak, Williams more quietly was generating a 64-game on-base streak – a mark he broke with an astounding 84-gamer in 1949.

The odds were always against Williams ever piecing together a significant hitting streak (he set his career high with a 23-gamer from May 15-June 7, 1941). He simply walked too much, costing him at-bats – and the fewer balls in play, the lower the chances that Williams could benefit from luck, as DiMaggio did several times during his streak. But on-base streaks are just as impressive: Duke Snider and Barry Bonds share the NL record with 58. Williams’ mark will likely never be touched, making it perhaps the most unheralded "unbreakable" record.

During his 56-game hitting streak in 1941, DiMaggio hit .408 with a .461 on-base percentage, 15 homers and 55 RBI. That means Williams essentially did all season long what DiMaggio managed during the most celebrated 56 games in history. Williams’ numbers from his July 19-Sept. 23 64-gamer: .420 batting, .595 on-base, 20 homers, 55 RBI. The question shouldn’t be which feat (56 games or .406) is greater, as each requires a completely different set of skills and luck. The question should be which streak was greater; we’d put our vote with Williams’.

Nevertheless, the focus of 1941 is on 56 and .406. The reality is so much more than that. Williams pieced together a season that we will likely never see again. .400 as a batting average has never seriously been challenged. George Brett last touched .400 13 games before the end of the 1980 season, but a 4-for-29 slump over the next seven erased those aspirations. Tony Gwynn was batting .394 when the strike ended the 1994 season in August, but that mark was his highest since May and followed a hot 11 games in which he batted .455. Gwynn was never truly a competitor.

[A further caveat: The sacrifice fly counted as a time at bat in 1941 – costing Williams five more points of batting. He would have finished with a .411 average under today’s rules, while Brett would have hit .384 and Gwynn .389 under 1941’s rules].

Contrast those two excellent modern seasons with Williams’. The Splinter’s season-low average of .302 was reached on May 2. Williams ended a day below .400 just 29 times – 20 of them before his 4-for-5 day against New York on May 25 goosed his average to .404. Williams did not just get hot at the right time; he essentially had a 143-game hitting streak.

Of course, the Kid’s plate discipline was legendary – as evidenced by his ridiculous 145-walk, 27-strikeout 1941. No one with so many walks has ever struck out so few times. In fact, only 19 times in the live-ball era has anyone walked more than 125 times while striking out fewer than 50. And only Ferris Fain’s 1950 (one fewer strikeout, 14 fewer walks) ever came close. As a result, Williams’ .553 on-base percentage was an all-time record that stood for 61 years – until Barry Bonds, on the strength of 68 intentional walks in 2002 and 120 in 2004, broke it. Other than Bonds, no one has reached base in better than half their appearances since Williams retired in 1960. Williams himself (1957) is the only player to ever seriously challenge his own AL on-base record.

Key games: Sept. 28. The story is one of sport’s greatest. Williams, sitting at .3996 and given the opportunity to mathematically become the first hitter since Bill Terry in 1930 – and just the eighth player ever – to hit .400, declines manager Joe Cronin’s offer to sit. He bats in both games of the season-ending double-header, and six hits later, .406 is engraved forever into baseball lore.

5 comments… add one

  • Bravo, Paul. And great point about the on-base streak. I think that’s worth a post in itself.

    YF March 31, 2008, 4:05 pm
  • To some degree, I agree, but then players aim for what’s being valued, which has some truth. Not to devalue what Williams did.
    For example, I think it was Mantle that said stolen bases weren’t really valued at all back in the day, and if 40-40 was such a big deal, he could’ve done it every year.
    So yes, it’s still great that Williams was what he was, but it’s tough to penalize DiMaggio retroactively for a “lesser” feat…
    Of course, I have the usual Yanks bias in either case.. ;)

    Lar March 31, 2008, 5:18 pm
  • players aim for what’s being valued, which has some truth.
    I heard this argument a lot among those arguing for Jim Rice to be inducted into the Hall. “Walks weren’t valued at the time,” they’d say, “otherwise he’d have been more selective and driven up his on-base percentage.” Andre Dawson supporters use the same logic.
    I think these arguments are specious, and I think the players themselves know better. Is walking better than reaching for a bad pitch and grounding out or, worse, into a double play? Yes. It’s not a new concept. It’s hard for me to believe that had he only been more enlightened, DiMaggio would have walked enough to match Williams’ on-base streaks.
    At any rate, the point here isn’t to say DiMaggio’s streak is overrated or shomehow not as good as everyone thinks (I am making a bit of an unspoken case for Williams’ deserving the MVP that season). It’s to show that Williams, if anything, has had streaks that were just as good, if not better, but which were underrated by the prevailing culture of baseball observation over the past 60 years.
    DiMaggio has benefited for decades from a school of thought that emphasized hits as the basis for determining success, a school born from the dead-ball era, when walks were truly devalued and batting average was an accurate tool by which to measure real value. The new school of thought is that simply reaching base is valuable — and, moreover, is a fairer way to determine success. This doesn’t take away from DiMaggio’s amazing streak; it simply gives other streaks — with just as much, if not more, “wow” value — their due.

    Paul SF March 31, 2008, 5:45 pm
  • As an additional disclaimer, as a fan of Bill James and OBP (my other fantasy league actually uses OPS) I value the on-base streak high as well, but not necessarily at the expense of the other more famous streak.
    I just wanted to give the other side, nothing more than that.
    In a game of percentages, it’s hard to say either way, but remember that he did get on a 17 game (give or take one, my memory might be off) hitting streak right after that, and that he hit a 64 game streak (also from memory, sorry) in triple-A means that, at least on some level, that he was aiming for it. Rather he aims for it because he’s good at it, or he just “happens” to get the streak because he’s good is probably another debate anyhow..

    Lar March 31, 2008, 6:48 pm
  • I think its also interesting to note that the same exact biases would be seen today if two similar players were having these seasons. The chase for .400 or 56 straight would be the header on Baseball Tonight daily and there would be barely a mention of going for .543 and (to a lesser extent) the chase for 84 straight on base. These numbers stick in history as they are easier for the casual fan to digest.

    sam-YF March 31, 2008, 11:55 pm

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