Robert F. Jakubowicz: DiMaggio has greatest of all sports achievements

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PITTSFIELD >> The Boston Red Sox are fun to watch this season because of their winning ways as a team and their individual achievements. Sox fans were especially excited over Jackie Bradley Jr.'s hit streak of 28 consecutive games that unfortunately ended last week. That fan exhilaration has now shifted to Xander Bogaerts with his hit streak of 26 games entering Friday night's game.

Baseball fans get excited about these hit streaks because of the perceived possibility that such a run of hits could lead to tying or breaking Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak set 75 years ago. But the late Stephen Jay Gould, a widely read author of scientific essays, paleontologist, Harvard educator, and big baseball fan, told fans they should not hold their collective breath. Gould concluded that from a scientific viewpoint, it is improbable that "Joltin" Joe's batting record will ever be equaled or broken.

Stunning exception

Gould's wrote in his 1988 New York Times essay "The Streak of Streaks," that "Nothing ever happens in baseball above and beyond the frequency predicted by coin-tossing models." He was of the opinion that streaks in sports — from the longest runs of shooting consecutive baskets in basketball to the longest runs of wins, losses and hits in baseball — "are as long as they should be, and occur as often as they ought to" with good players having longer streaks.

Gould based his conclusion on a study by Stanford psychologist Amos Tversky, who worked with the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, and a study by Ed Purcell, a Nobel laureate in physics, of all baseball streaks.

Gould noted that there has been only one major exception that is so above these expected runs in sports that it should not have happened at all — DiMaggio's hitting streak. And that is why Gould calls the New York Yankees slugger's streak "the greatest accomplishment in the history of baseball, if not all modern sports."

Gould made a keen insight about how baseball imitates life and teaches an important lesson. He said the history of a species requiring "unbroken continuity in a world of trouble works like a batting streak." It's a game of a gambler playing with a limited stake against the house with endless resources. Our aims in life as such gamblers "can only be to stick around as long as possible, to have some fun, according to Gould, and if we are moral, "to worry about staying the course with honor,.(and) the best of us will try to live by a few simple rules: do justly, live mercy, walk humbly with thy God "

DiMaggio's streak, according to Gould, embodied this core of the battle defining our lives. He achieved, in a sense, the "unattainable dream of all humanity ...he cheated death, at least for a while."

After Gould's death, two mathematicians at Cornell University did a study of the unlikelihood of another consecutive game hit streak to match or break DiMaggio's streak. They published their finding in 2008 that hitting streaks of 56 games or longer "are not at all an unusual circumstance." But, four college mathematicians published a paper in 2010 of their study with a contrary result about DiMaggio's streak. They presented their findings at a conference on collegiate mathematics with the conclusion that "only rarely did a hitting streak of greater than 40 occur."

Pete Rose came the closest since 1941 to DiMaggio's streak with 44 consecutive games. Under one of their study models they found that the likelihood of a .357 batter (DiMaggio's average in 1941) hitting safely in 56 consecutive major league games had a probability of 0.0001723 percent.

Probability foiled

I am neither a mathematician nor a scientist but it seems to me that the inability of any major league player to come close to tying or breaking DiMaggio's hitting streak makes a strong case that such a record is indeed unique.

Gould called the streak and the slugger who accomplished it a legitimate legend with a real hero because it was a unique case of beating an "unblemished record of Dame Probability." Gould thought this achievement might make us understand the world better by grasping how probability works. "If we understood Lady Luck better," according to Gould, "Las Vegas might still be a roadway in the desert."

This past May 15 marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of DiMaggio's streak. It passed with little notice by the public. To many baseball fans his streak is just another record to be broken by the likes of today's players, such as Bradley or Bogaerts, but it is much more than that. DiMaggio deserves a great deal more credit for his achievement then he gets.

Robert F. Jakubowicz is a regular Eagle contributor.


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