September 9, 1939 against the Washington Senators Joe DiMaggio had two singles and a double in four at bats (AB) bringing his batting average (BA) to .409. DiMaggio had 159 hits in 389 AB. From 1938-1944 the American League (AL) requirement to qualify for leading the league in BA: 400 AB. The National League still had the old requirement of 100 games and would not go to 400 AB until 1945. How well was the AL requirement known in September 1939? Did DiMaggio know then? Did DiMaggio ever know. Did his Yankee manager Joe McCarthy?
Sept. 9 was Yankee team game 133, including a seven inning tie in the second game of a doubleheader in Boston Sept. 3 in which DiMaggio hit two singles and a home run in 4 AB. The 1939 Yankees played 152 games, including the tie; the full schedule was 154 games.
DiMaggio had a really good chance to hit .400 for the 1939 season. But DiMaggio finished the season at .381, something that would haunt him for the rest of his life, especially when the younger Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, taking over the spotlight from DiMaggio and his 56 game hitting streak that ended in mid July 1941.
DiMaggio had the highest AL BA in both 1939 and 1940.
"Joe DiMaggio: Hero's Life" by Richard Ben Cramer 2000, page 138:
... infection ... left eye, swelling it near shut... Joe expected McCarthy to sit him ... DiMaggio was too proud to ask ...
More than fifty years later, Joe was still complaining that the Yankees had already clinched the pennant ... it would gall Joe ... batting .400 called to mind ... his hated rival, Ted Williams. More and more, Joe would insist (to friends - never in public or print) that he could have hit .400, too, if only McCarthy had let him sit... After the season the Skipper volunteered (Joe would never have asked) ... "People might've said you were a cheese champion."
Joe took that explanation in silence.
Was McCarthy trying to protect DiMaggio or himself? Or both? Could McCarthy have done anything, given that DiMaggio needed to increase his AB to qualify?
The Yankees led second place Boston by 17 games when DiMaggio was at .409 with only about 20 games to go. First place and a fourth consecutive pennant for both McCarthy and DiMaggio was assured. The Yankees had won the World Series in DiMaggio's first three seasons and now DiMaggio had a chance to establish an individual achievement. The hitting streak was still two years away.
DiMaggio did not play between April 29, 1939 and May 27, 1939 due to injury. That reduced his plate appearances.
In 1939 DiMaggio struck out 20 times in 463 AB in 120 games, never more than once in any game. On September 10 against Washington DiMaggio struck out in both games of a doubleheader, going 0 for 4 in each game. Sept. 12 DiMaggio was 0 for 5 with another strike out against Cleveland. Zero for 13 dropped his BA to .396. DiMaggio would never reach .400 again in 1939.
Starting Sept. 10 DiMaggio struck out in five of six games and six of eight games. Of his total strike outs: 25% in five games and 30% in eight games. This suggests that DiMaggio's eye problem impacted him then but when and how the eye problem started is not known.
In that 0 for 5 Sept. 12 Cleveland game DiMaggio reached 402 AB, which qualified him to lead the AL in BA. But even if McCarthy had tried to protect DiMaggio's .400 BA by removing him at AB number 400, DiMaggio's BA was still only .3975: 159 hits in 400 AB. The only way that McCarthy could have protected DiMaggio was to have benched him after the Sept. 9 game when Joe was hitting .409. When Joe's eye was healed, McCarthy could have played DiMaggio again, probably with plenty of time for DiMaggio to get the eleven additional AB needed to qualify.
But by then DiMaggio might have lost his timing. DiMaggio might have slumped. DiMaggio might have choked. It wouldn't have taken much to put his BA below .400.
Over the years some have questioned why McCarthy played DiMaggio every day. Relative to DiMaggio hitting .400 the only issue is when DiMaggio played. Once DiMaggio' BA dropped below .400 it didn't matter how much McCarthy played DiMaggio. Joe wasn't going to reach .400 again and he was safe for leading in BA. Even dropping way down to .381, DiMaggio was still way ahead of Jimmie Foxx who hit .360 and was second; Foxx played his last 1939 game Sept. 8 in Yankee Stadium. Bob Johnson of Philadelphia was third at .338.
The Yankees swept the Cincinnati Reds in the 1939 World Series. DiMaggio had one of his better WS: .313 .353 .500 .853, including a home run.
And what about McCarthy's idea: "People might've said you were a cheese champion."?
Suppose DiMaggio hit .400 by sitting and barely qualifying with only 400 AB? In 1941 Ted Williams hit .406 with 185 hits in 456 AB, plus AL leading 147 walks in 143 games. And Williams needed to play the final day to get his BA back over .400. Would a DiMaggio .400 BA on 400 AB have looked cheesey in comparison?
Ted Williams hit .394 in 1941 against teams not the Yankees. Monday, August 15, 2016
Ted Williams: the mythology of the final games of 1941. Thursday, October 13, 2011