The Greatest Hitter of All Time
By Rick Soisson
Generally, all it takes is several fairly knowledgeable baseball fans, a freshly poured beer for each, reasonably comfortable barstools, probably a little extra cash in everyone’s pockets and, of course, the question itself:
“OK, then, dude, who is the greatest hitter of all time?”
At first, the usual suspects will emerge: Ted Williams will be declared tops because he was the last player to hit .400. Babe Ruth will be nominated for his game-changing accomplishments, his home run totals, his lifetime batting average, and his incomprehensible slugging averages (that eye-popping .849 in 1920, .690 lifetime, according the very reliable baseball-reference.com). Joe DiMaggio will garner high praise, especially from New Yorkers, for his 56-game hitting streak and the great beauty of his swing. Nasty little Ty Cobb and his top-of-the-list lifetime batting average will come up. Someone will likely mention Henry Aaron, the unjuiced home run king. (Ruth’s partisans will immediately counter that Hammerin’ Hank had thousands more at-bats than The Bambino.) Willie Mays won’t be missed in this discussion, either. One might even reasonably expect someone to applaud the cheating-is-eternal nominee, Barry Bonds. That argument goes: Who knows what substances have actually been abused by whom and/or when?
If children were allowed in the bar, some modern players would be nominated. (As my 10-year-old daughter said recently, “Who knows—in fifty years, maybe Chase Utley will be the greatest hitter of all time?” Who knows, indeed? Perhaps Utley, a marvelous hitter, will continually raise his average over the next several years, and the argument in 2060 could be that Utley faced a thoroughly implanted, modern pitching game—several relievers; our modern, terrifying closers, etc., as well as superbly conditioned fielders, including outfielders who would have given Jesse Owens a very serious run for his money. (Oops, nearly forgot: Jesse wasn’t paid. Not to worry, though, the matter of money is merely another plank on candidate Utley’s platform. His opponents are far more motivated than those fellows trying to run down Ruth’s doubles.) Modernists might even suggest that the greatest hitter in the history of America’s Pastime is Japanese. Had Ichiro begun his career in America, would he be retiring in the relatively near future with more than 5000 hits? Keep in mind that Japanese baseball seasons are shorter than American MLB seasons, shorter even than the seasons that lasted 154 games prior to 1962.
What necessitates a second beer is that all of arguments for these well-known nominees’ defining records seem to have a reasonably strong counter-argument lurking in wings all ready to trip up The Great One on his way to the podium to accept his laurel wreath. For example, take the argument for Williams, based on his being the last .400 hitter. If “last” is a standard, then are George Brett and John Olerud the second- and third-best hitters ever, respectively? It is (somewhat) common knowledge that these two players, after Williams, took .400 averages the furthest into two different seasons without finishing over .3995. Example Two: If Babe Ruth copied Shoeless Joe Jackson’s swing, as he supposedly admitted, what does that say about Jackson?
An example for the eggheads? The great Harvard scientist and teacher, Stephen Jay Gould, famously declared Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak genuinely unique among baseball’s great records, essentially the one record that mathematical analysis denies as possible. In an apparent attempt to completely lose their lay audience, Britain’s Independent quoted Gould himself in a review of his “Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville” in January, 2004: “According to a breathless Gould, DiMaggio’s hitting streak is ‘so many standard deviations above the expected distribution it shouldn’t have happened at all.’” A little more than four years later, two fellows named Samuel Arbesman and Steven Strogatz published a piece in The New York Times that boils down to: Gould is wrong, wrong, wrong! Indeed, according to their analysis, which involved running 10,000 computer simulations of baseball’s history from 1871 to 2005, a great number of “absurd” records have been possible, indeed probable. Among their eye-opening statements was this: “[I]n 1941 Joe DiMaggio had an 81 percent chance of getting at least one hit in each game (this statistic can be calculated using his total number of hits in the season, the number of games he played and his number of plate appearances).” What is a mere 56-game streak next to The Full Season Streak?
And what about the right-handed hitters? There are more right-handed pitchers than lefties, generally, so shouldn’t the disadvantaged right-handed hitters’ averages be adjusted? Again, the nice folks at baseball-reference.com tell us that Rogers Hornsby hit .424 in 1924. Would that number be the equivalent of, say, .454 for a left-handed hitter?
And then, following the usual suspects, the romantic favorites will draw due praise, and the need for a third beer, further complicating the matter: Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, come on down!
What all of the arguments above have in common, though, is the only slightly hidden implication that this question can only be answered if the term “hitter” (or “hitting”) is defined. And before an objection that the discussion would thus wander into the territory of philosophy, semantics, or epistemology, it might be observed that all three of those areas are very useful in thoughtful analysis. Take the age-old question that still flummoxes young philosophy students: If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is there to hear it, does said tree actually make a sound? The answer here is twofold, depending on the definition of “sound”: If “sound” is defined as vibrations in the air, then the answer is yes. If “sound” implies, however, both those vibrations and a receiver of them (an ear), then the answer is no. Definition is everything, in other words.
Think outside the box here … or is that phrase applicable? In its widest sense, the term “hit” means putting the bat on the ball. Often, however, it denotes either a base hit (n.), or to hit safely (v.), but those are narrower usages than a wider but still correct usage, as in, “He hit that screamer right at the shortstop.” This wider, but not widest, usage indicates a ball hit into fair territory, whatever the outcome. (That fourth beer may be in order here.) Bottom line? If the greatest hitter is defined as the player who hit the most balls into play, the greatest hitter in baseball history is (drum roll, please) Joe Sewell.
Although a Hall of Famer, Sewell is largely forgotten by even knowledgeable baseball fans, but any good historical resource will present the information needed to visualize him. The infielder played fourteen seasons with the Indians and Yankees, stood 5’6”, weighed 155 pounds, and had a .312 lifetime batting average: a contact hitter (baseball-reference.com). Without some combing through the data from a good baseball encyclopedia or website, however, Sewell’s genius may not be readily apparent because that genius, distilled into its most dramatic presentation, would be as follows: Joe Sewell was a mortal lock to strike out—every hundredth time at bat. Well, that’s not quite true, as simple long division and a good resource will prove. In fact, Sewell struck out over the course of his career once every 62.6 times (7132 AB/114 lifetime Ks—combining 3rd-grade addition and 4th-grade long division with data from baseball-reference.com again, and moving forward through the end of this piece). In contrast, Babe Ruth struck out every 6.3 times at bat, a record very nearly ten times worse. Baseball’s highest profile slap hitter, Ty Cobb, a hitter very, very much like Sewell, struck out every 32nd time at bat.
In other words, Sewell was Cobb’s Cobb.
Oh, and for nine straight years, that one strikeout per 100 at bats was very much true. From 1925 through 1933, Joe Sewell had 4785 official at bats. He struck out 48 times, once every 99.7 at bats. If his walks are added to his at-bats for that period, it is entirely accurate to say that, for nine years running, Sewell struck out less than every 110th time.
This is heresy, though! “The Greatest Hitter of All Time” has to mean a hitter who hit safely, doesn’t it? Maybe yes, maybe no. Consider all the good things, the run-producing things, that can happen when a ball is put into play and an out arguably should be recorded: 1) an error; 2) multiple errors; 3) catcher’s interference; 4) infielder’s (or rarely, outfielder’s) interference; 5) a successful hit and run play; 6) a sacrifice fly; 7) an RBI groundout; 8) fan interference to the batter’s advantage; and best of all, 9), an error that is scored as a hit.
Besides, Sewell hit .312 when no out was or should have been recorded. Data readily available online from baseball-almanac.com indicates that this is a better figure than the lifetime averages of 35 HOF-inducted players who played the same positions as Sewell (SS, 2B and 3B). Moreover, hitters like Cobb and Sewell literally sprayed foul balls around like rice behind the newlyweds’ departing car, wearing their opponents’ pitchers down. Finally, a batter who almost literally never strikes out gives his teammates and manager far more confidence about stealing bases.
DiMaggians like to point out that one year Joe D had a better than 2:1 home run to strikeout ratio; this is true, and it was a wonderful accomplishment. Joe Sewell never hit many home runs. But then, Joe D’s 13 Ks in 1941, when he hit 30 HRs, are equivalent to the total Joe Sewell posted in 1928 and 1929 together, and nearly double the number Sewell racked up in 1932 and 1933—again, together. His last two years in baseball, in over 1000 at bats, Joe Sewell struck out seven times.
Go ahead, order another beer. The man was a hitting machine.
About the author
Rick Soisson was born and raised in Pittsburgh, took two degrees from Villanova, and has lived in the Philadelphia area most of his adult life, currently in the East Falls section of the city. At present he teaches writing and literature at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and at Montgomery County (PA) Community College. His essays, cartoons, illustrations and ad art have appeared in a number of print and online publications, from the Inquirer to Studies in Contemporary Satire to The Broad Street Review. His poem “Aaron Rowand” appeared in The Chicago Baseball Museum Newsletter in 2007.