On the NY Times Op-Ed page this morning, Samuel Arbesman, a grad student at Cornell, and Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell, test, through 10,000 computer simulations of the entire history of Major League Baseball, the likelihood of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941. Other scientists, notably Stephen Jay Gould, as well as sports fans everywhere, have declared the streak so improbable as to be nearly impossible. Certainly no one’s come close to it. The next-longest streak is 44 games, shared by Wee Willie Keeler in 1897 and Pete Rose in 1978.
So was it impossible? Not according to the mathematicians. “More than half the time, or in 5,296 baseball universes, the record for the longest hitting streak exceeded 53 games. Two-thirds of the time, the best streak was between 50 and 64 games.”
The real unlikelihood, they add, is that Joe D’s streak occurred in 1941. That’s one of the least likely years. The most likely? 1894. In more than a tenth (or 1,290) of their baseball universes, the longest streak landed there.
DiMaggio is also an unlikely record-holder. Percentage-wise, both Hugh Duffy and Wee Willie Keeler were better shots.
It’s a fun article to read at the start of baseball season, but I would’ve liked a little something, maybe a paragraph, on the human aspect of the streak. Arbesman and Strogatz are merely asserting that it’s mathematically possible for DiMaggio to do what he did. But, for me, part of the reason no one’s come close, certainly since, is that the closer one comes, the greater the pressure.
People begin to notice after 20 games. People begin to comment on it. Everyone becomes aware of it. Then the player becomes aware of it. A certain kind of awareness is harmful in any endeavor, particularly in sports where you have to live in the moment, and I think this would be one of those times. An awareness of what you’re doing would get in the way of you actually doing it. You’d be too much outside yourself, as you are in a slump, rather than inside yourself, where you need to be to succeed. The very success of the streak, in other words, would breed the mentality that would inevitably cut it short.
I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying it would require the mental discipline of a computer. Or a computer simulation.