Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Joltin' Jimmy
By Bryan Koch

They call it “the greatest record of all time.”

Fifty-six games, two hundred and twenty-three at bats, ninety-one base hits neatly dispersed so that not a single game would go without.

They called him a hero. They called him the walking embodiment of the American Dream. They called him obsessive, for the unnatural fashion in which he craved victory, pursuing it as its own end.

But mostly, they called him “Joltin’ Joe.”

Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.

It has a certain ring to it.

He was born the eighth of ten children to Rosalia and Giuseppe, Italian immigrants who called a small area of two rooms their home. As a teenager, he imagined a life of professional baseball to escape the morose reality of working on his father’s fishing boat.

One lonely morning, your parents manage a glimpse of Liberty Herself, their eyes affixed to Her torch as a swarming, dingy vessel of dreams nears anchor at Ellis Island. Turn the page, and you’re brown-eyed, a brother to nine, staring down destiny on a hazy afternoon on Dad’s boat. A few decades later, you’re perhaps one of the greatest ballplayers to have ever graced the field.

You’re a Yankee.

Dreams. Celebrity. Triumph.

You’re America.

---

One half percent. One out of two hundred.

Take Jimmy Rollins’ expected batting average in 2006 (as calculated by Dan Szymborski) and subtract it from a thousand, or a perfect mark. Multiply the result by an exponent of four and one third (the average number of at bats the shortstop records per game). Subtract the result from one hundred percent and you’ve calculated Rollins’ expectation of safely reaching first base at least once in a single game. Multiply that decimal by itself nineteen times, and you’ve obtained the statistical probability that Rollins matches Joltin’ Joe’s hitting streak, give or take a few percentage points for the inevitable minutiae.

Tales of performance-enhancing drugs have captivated the casual baseball fan and, accordingly, neo-historians have attributed to them a particular cross-section of the game’s timeline; thus, they have proclaimed these years, “The Steroids Era.”

But while beat writers march in line, baseball insiders understand that the even more significant trend has been the sabermetrics revolution, the whirlwind of upheaval generated by win shares and Moneyball and computers and glasses, and the classicalist response: in certain cases, an outright rejection of new-fangled theory, in others, an increasingly contrived movement toward fundamentals, and very often, verbal assaults that aim to put the nerds back in their place, once and for all.

In spite of book sales, the chronicling of steroid usage ought not define these years. No, the true story of our time is the one that’s still largely untold, the one that is leaked out in whispers and rumors. The true story is that of the war waged in corner offices and conference rooms, of the ongoing struggle between the stat-heads and purists, of the battle for observational legitimacy in the baseball world.

One half of one percent. Can a single figure really tell us all we need to know about Joltin’ Jimmy’s chances?

Isn’t there something else?

Aren’t we more than just numbers?

---

The year is 1954. Sports Illustrated releases its first issue. In Washington, President Eisenhower speaks out against American intervention in Vietnam. In Memphis, the first Elvis Presley record is recorded on WHBQ. In New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closes above its high point before the crash and subsequent depression of 1929 for the first time.

In San Francisco, Joe DiMaggio weds Marilyn Monroe.

Their marriage ended that same year. Richard Ben Cramer, who penned DiMaggio’s biography, alleged that it was Monroe’s infamous skirt-blowing scene for The Seven Year Itch that sent their relationship into a downward spiral. On Lexington Avenue, Monroe revealed nearly everything, and DiMaggio watched with a “look of death” on his face, according to director Billy Wilder. Soon thereafter, America’s most revered relationship was something of the past.

According to another biographer, DiMaggio quit his job on August 1, 1962 to ask Monroe for her hand in remarriage. He had never stopped caring for the star, and worried of her increasingly despairing actions. But before he could save her, Monroe was found dead four days later. Most likely, she committed suicide, but authorities didn’t know for sure.

Still, either Monroe took her own life or she didn’t. There’s no issue of likelihood there.

No, the only thing that’s unsure is what we know.

DiMaggio took care of funeral arrangements, not allowing Hollywood stars access. He believed it was their culture of money and fame that accelerated Monroe’s demise. For the next twenty years, a half-dozen roses were placed at her grave three times a week.

By order of Joltin’ Joe.

Turning points. Beginnings. Ends.

---

Employing the same strategy by which we obtained Rollins’ chances (of recording at least one base hit in nineteen consecutive games; not the full fifty-six), we can calculate the probability of DiMaggio’s streak, given his batting average of .357 in 1941.

Running the numbers, our answer is less than two one hundred thousandths of a percentage point, or approximately one in sixty thousand.

In other words, the chances of even the most proficient hitter in the league (arguably next to Ted Williams) hitting in fifty-six straight games approached zero.

One in sixty thousand? That’s all the stat-heads can say for Joltin’ Joe? He just got really lucky?

Or, perhaps we should consider that probability is a tool by which we only estimate the future, which, while predetermined in some sense, is as of yet unknown to us. Statistical approximation, in essence, is humanity’s admission of its own ignorance, and subsequent attempt to rectify that error.

Was it fate? Was Joltin’ Joe the American Odysseus? Was Athena always writing up his script?

Before May 15, 1941, the day on which DiMaggio’s effort commenced, the numerical likelihood was less than two one hundred thousandths. But on July 17, when the streak concluded, it was one hundred percent. It had happened.

But then, was it ever really that improbable? Could it really have ever been any other way?

Well, there could have been a hamstring pull. Or maybe the rain could have cut a game short in the sixth inning, leaving DiMaggio 0-2, his run finished at twenty-seven. Or maybe Bob Feller could have been throwing particularly electric stuff on June 2, when the Yankee Clipper managed two hits, including a double, and came around to score both times.

But none of those things happened. So they couldn’t have happened. Right? Alternate realities in hypothetical worlds are just that: hypothetical.

Later that year, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the United States was plunged into the most significant confrontation in the history of the world. Not long after, DiMaggio would enter the Air Force. He never saw combat. If he were killed, it was argued, then American morale would take an irreparable blow.

Joltin’ Joe.

More than a number.

Nothing happens by chance.

It just seems that way beforehand.

---

Jimmy Rollins is two thirds of the way home to matching – and perhaps breaking – the greatest record of all time. The twenty-seven year-old switch-hitter, born in Oakland, mans the infield before a radically evolved nation. While it was the morning newspaper that kept tabs on DiMaggio, Rollins’ successful at bats will have been replayed on national television dozens of times before the dailies ever hit the streets.

Jimmy Rollins, a relative unknown in Digital America. Computers, numbers, statistics, box scores, percentages, binaries, and a free-swinging shortstop chasing history in Philly.

The probability theorists would inform us that, on average, Rollins matches Joltin’ Joe one out of two hundred times.

Or, he does it in one out of two hundred worlds. So, in some sense, either Joltin’ Jimmy must reach 56, or he must not.

One out of two hundred worlds, they tell us.

They just can’t tell us which one we’re living in.




Biographical details courtesy of Wikipedia.

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