Was Joe DiMaggio the most perfect ballplayer in baseball history?

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“You’d just see him and you knew you had a pretty good chance to win.” — Phil Rizzuto

“He knew he was Joe DiMaggio and he knew what that meant to the country. He felt that obligation to the Yankees and the public.” — Lefty Gomez 

In 2011 some smart folks used lasers to measure an electron 25 million times. Through their precise analysis, they found that the electron was the most spherical object ever observed. The electron is a perfect sphere to within one billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter. Pretty darn round. 

An examination of those who saw him play, as well as the statistical record, suggests that DiMaggio was the most perfect ballplayer we’ve ever had. Maybe to within a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of baseball perfection. 

DiMaggio had the instincts of a great hitter and the mechanics to go with it. He made contact and also hit for power. His defensive play in center field was as good as anyone in the league. He had range and a strong arm. He could run very well and he never dove for a ball or ran into a wall, it just seemed like he always went where the baseball could drop into his glove. 

Ted Williams said that if he’d had the speed of DiMaggio, he could have hit .400 a few more times. DiMaggio’s swing was considered the most beautiful and perfect from a right-handed batter. He had no weakness on the diamond. One of the most remarkable things people say about DiMaggio, people who saw him play, is how easy he made the game look. 

Another way to look at the question of near-perfection is to work backward and ask “What would a perfect ballplayer accomplish?” He might lead the league in home runs while hitting more home runs than he has strikeouts. He might lead the league in triples and home runs and runs scored and runs batted in, as well as hitting and slugging and total bases in the same season. He might glide to the warning track to take away triples, and throw out runners trying to stretch a gapper into a double. He might help his team win more championships than anyone ever had. He might get at least one hit every game for two months. DiMaggio did all those things. 

The greatness of DiMaggio is amplified when we consider that he played in a ballpark that did not suit his game. The dimensions in left and left-center field at old Yankee Stadium took a lot of home runs away from Joe. In 1939, Joe hit .413 away from Yankee Stadium, and .350 in his home park. If we could somehow magically give him those three years he missed in World War II, and also place him in a neutral ballpark, DiMaggio would have easily topped 500 home runs and likely batted closer to .335 for his career. But Joe wouldn’t have changed a thing.

“I loved being a Yankee, the pinstripes,” DiMaggio said. “I was not too happy about the ballpark … but I wouldn’t have given it up. My greatest thrill was to be with the Yankees and to be a Yankee.”

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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