70th Anniversary of Baseball’s Most Underrated Season

Posted on September 27, 2011

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By Matt Melton

Geoff Ratliff and Jeremy Sickel, Editors

“If I had known hitting .400 was going to be such a big deal, I would have done it again.”

In 1991, when Ted Williams spoke those words, it was the 50th anniversary of his magical 1941 season.  Now, another twenty years later, it makes me laugh picturing Teddy Ballgame consider the possibility that he could have pocketed a handful of .400 seasons, if only he cared enough to have tried.

I could list the stats from the back of his baseball card that season – they are what you might deem fairly impressive – but the important thing to remember about the most underrated season in baseball history is that Ted Williams did not win the MVP the year he hit .406. Let me repeat that. Ted Williams did not win the MVP the year he hit forty-five points higher than his closest competition.

He did not win the MVP when an average day meant going 2-for-5 at the plate. He did not win the MVP, even though he led the league in Runs, Home Runs, Walks, OBP, and SLG; and by margins that bring the phrase “lap the field” to mind. He did not win the MVP even though he refused to take a seat on the last day of the season, with a batting average of .39955; good enough for MLB to write in the record books as .400. He only went on to play both games of a double-header that day, and batted a measly 6-for-8.  I have a feeling there is a line in there somewhere about a true MVP putting the team ahead of the individual, even on the last day of a lost season.

I’d like to think that the voters passed on Ted Williams because he was a young twenty-two year old playing for a cursed Red Sox franchise that finished seventeen games back in the American League. I’d like to think the voters felt “The Kid” had to pay some dues before tying his name to an award that only Jimmie Foxx and Tris Speaker had won for the city of Boston. I’d like to think all of that, but we all know why Ted Williams didn’t win the 1941 MVP…

There was that guy on that one New York team, the one with the pinstripes, who decided to get base hits in a bunch of consecutive games.

I get it. What a joy it must have been for baseball fans to watch Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams at the top of their games. What I don’t get is how DiMaggio’s accomplishment is seen as the greatest ever (by far, it seems), and Williams’ is, well, not?

With all the attention the Steroid Era brought to home runs and all the attention Moneyball brought to the “base on balls”, we forget that a batter’s main objective is to get a hit. I can’t imagine any batter walks to home plate with the intention of working four balls from the pitcher and taking his base. Sometimes a walk is necessary, and if it happens, you take your base, but hitters only want to do one thing when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand – get a hit.  Not for one game, not for five or ten games, not even for “56” – but in every single at bat of every single game.

I have to give credit to Bill Pennington of the New York Times for the following tidbits, because it’s worth noting that the 1941 season was not a breeze for Williams. He began the season with a broken bone in his right foot, and missed most of April. That must have really upset him, because all he did was hit .436 in May. He then re-injured his foot after the All-Star Game, causing him to miss another twelve days, which he promptly followed by going 12-for-22 in his return to the lineup.

Don’t get me wrong, DiMaggio hit an awesome .408 during his 56-game hitting streak, but Williams hit .412 during that same stretch. In fact, he started his own hitting streak the same day DiMaggio began his, and Williams hit .489 during those twenty-three games. I wonder if he purposely stopped his own streak, because he didn’t want to offend the greats of the game’s past by coming oh-so close to a .500 average; insert sarcasm, but maybe not.

Shockingly, back in 1941, MLB counted sacrifice flies as at-bats. That meant that under today’s standards, William’s actual average is several points higher – maybe as high as .419 – depending on how certain at-bats would be scored. Ted Williams’ 1941 season is so underappreciated that we don’t even really know what his actually batting average was. We just know it begins with a 4.

Maybe it is all William’s fault. As Pennington notes, he was likely to say his 1957 season was his best season.  That was the year he finished hitting .388, one month after blowing out 39 candles on his birthday cake. The best seasons of Rod Carew, George Brett and a strike-shortened season from Tony Gwynn, were the only one’s good enough to stand next to a 39-year old Ted Williams in the modern era. If there was ever going to be a Mount Rushmore of hitters, those three are all certainly in the conversation. Just make sure you have 4 or 5 profiles of the Splendid Splinter in place before you begin to carve anyone else’s.

In the end, I suspect that Ted Williams’ 1941 season will only gain proper appreciation with each passing year, just as it has over the last seventy. When you are the tenth person to reach a milestone, as he was by cracking the .400 barrier, no one could really be expected to understand the magnitude of such an accomplishment. No one could have at that time. That’s why it’s left to us younger baseball “historians’ to keep the memory alive.

It may take a few more generations of baseball fans to come and go before the most underappreciated season in baseball history gets its just due. Those same future fans that will be trained to marvel at someone hitting .300 for a season, but when they open their iPad 17s to Ted Williams’1941 season page, my hope is that they will see what I see – the last time we witnessed a hitter compile a perfect season.

Posted in: MLB