If he was in a particularly foul mood, DiMaggio “even undercut Ted’s .406 achievement, telling pals he could have achieved the milestone himself in 1939 but for his manager…”2 Which is somewhat ironic, because DiMaggio, like most baseball figures of his era, didn’t realize that during Williams’ career, Ted had actually achieved a feat that eclipsed Joe D’s most famous accomplishment.
In 1949, Ted Williams recorded an on-base streak of 84 consecutive games, becoming the only player in baseball history to reach base every day for more than half a season. Ignored by baseball writers of the time due to a lack of appreciation for walks and the ability to get on base, it is only recently that Ted’s streak has begun to earn proper appreciation. The story of that streak also coincided with what almost became one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history.
Things did not look good for Ted or the Red Sox on June 30, 1949. Picked by many to run away with the American League pennant, the Sox dropped a 6-3 decision that day to the first-place Yankees and suffered an ignominious sweep at Fenway Park. The series belonged to DiMaggio, who had made his return from offseason heel surgery two days prior and proceeded to hit four home runs and drive in nine over the course of the three games.
DiMaggio’s performance was so remarkable that it prompted what might be considered the rarest moment in Fenway history: “The Boston fans, aware that something remarkable was going on, had started cheering for DiMaggio as well as for their own team.”3 Indeed, as he marked the grand finale of his dramatic comeback with a three-run homer, “over Fenway flew a small biplane trailing a banner that said: THE GREAT DIMAGGIO.”4
Now we know how Red Sox fans treated Yankee stars before the invention of the word “suck.”
To make matters worse, Williams had gone 0-for-5 with a double play against Vic Raschi. At that point, the favored Red Sox were listing along in fifth place with a 35-31 record, eight games behind the revitalized Yankees. It wasn’t as if Williams was the problem (which is how you can tell this piece didn’t appear in a Boston newspaper), as he was putting up a .320/.463/.621 line.
Still, something was definitely missing from the 1949 Sox. So to help the cause from that day forward, Ted Williams would not go a single game without reaching base until September 28. Even set against a career that was essentially a 19-year hot streak, the second half of 1949 made it feel like Ted’s hitting could form a new sun.
The streak began innocuously enough, with a pair of 1-for-4 days and a two-walk game as the Sox sunk deeper into the morass while getting swept by the Philadelphia A’s. Then it was as if a switch flipped and Ted went from “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived” to “He is The One.”
Boston finally broke their seven-game losing streak with a 4-2 win over the Yankees on July 5. Williams reached base four times, going 2-for-3 with two walks. And just like that, the Red Sox exploded in the opposite direction with an eight-game winning streak, during which Ted hit .391 (9-for-23) and walked 12 times.
Suddenly, the only thing keeping Ted from putting up a performance comparable to steroid-era Barry Bonds was an uncharacteristic lack of home run power. Despite his blistering on base pace, Ted hadn’t hit one out of the park in 16 games.
Finally, after going 2-for-3 with two doubles in the first game of a July 10 doubleheader, Williams laced “a high belt into the curving right-field pavilion sector”5 of Fenway Park during an 11-10 triumph over the A’s in the nightcap. And after homering for the first time since June 24, “it became known that Ted had fractured a rib on July 4 at Yankee Stadium.”6
At that point, Ted Williams was the only person on earth who could enter “fractured rib” into WebMD and get a list of symptoms that began with “.600 On Base Percentage.”
As if to show the rib wouldn’t bother him going forward, Williams homered again three days later against the Tigers, part of a 5-for-10 performance over two days that also saw him safely drop down a bunt to third base against the Boudreau Shift. The streak had reached 15 games and Williams was doing impressions of Jimmie Foxx in one at bat and Wee Willie Keeler in another. This was getting fun.
Then on July 19, it started to become absurd. Over the next six games, Williams would walk only four times. Given several more chances to hit, he proceeded to go 13-for-26 over that stretch and homered in four consecutive games from July 20-24. He twice found the right-field roof of Sportsman’s Park and his final homer of this blistering hot stretch put him in the American League lead.
Ted Williams was the only person on earth who could enter “fractured rib” into WebMD and get a list of symptoms that began with “.600 On Base Percentage.”
After ebbing and flowing recordwise over that week, his teammates again found a groove as the Sox went 8-2 over their next ten games. At the end of July, Ted had reached base in 31 straight and his slashline had risen to .340/.486/.643. The Red Sox were nine over .500 at 54-43, still trailing the Yankees by seven games. Over the next two months, they made it clear that they were just getting started.
August saw the Red Sox finally begin to make a move on the Yanks as they posted two seven-game winning streaks in the first half of the month and won 19 of 22 overall to cut the deficit to 2 1/2 games by the 21st. In the span of a month and a half, they had gone from a lost season to a reason for Boston fans to hope. Which, for Red Sox teams of the late 1940s, was an act of utmost cruelty.
For Ted Williams, August meant the continuation of unrelenting dominance. Ted began the month by recording multiple hits in seven of his first ten games. The last of these was a 3-for-4 performance with a home run in a taut 7-6 win over the Yankees as he extended the streak to 41 games.
Over that ten-game stretch, Williams slashed .500/.609/.889. Joe McCarthy could have saved time by filling the number three spot in his line-up card with “We accept your surrender.”
Finally, the League started to realize that Williams was locked in and pitchers began saying “No thanks” when he stepped to the plate. After that stretch of multiple hit games, Williams then amassed multiple walks in six of the next seven contests. He had slowed down a bit with the bat with only six hits over that span, which meant that his OBP over that weeklong stretch was a miniscule…
Simply put, the streak meant that Williams had invented a way to stop making outs during a slump. In August of 1949, facing Ted Williams was like reading a two-page Choose Your Own Adventure book where Page 2 said: “You lose.”
As if switching back into God Mode, Williams emerged from his brief slowdown with several more transcendent performances. Game 49 was a 4-for-5 effort with a home run “into 20th Street, far over the right field wall”7 of Shibe Park. The streak then entered DiMaggio territory in style: in Games 55-57, Ted went 8-for-16 with four home runs, including “a smash against the upper deck balustrade”8 at Comiskey Park.
The Red Sox and their slugger spent the dog days playing superlative baseball. By the end of this insane month, Ted’s numbers were at .356/.501/.672. The Red Sox were still two games back in second and looking to make a run at the Yankees down the stretch. They had gone hard for two months to get back into the race but their “regulars were simply exhausted…McCarthy was using fewer men then Stengel.”9 In order for Boston to keep winning, Williams would have to keep hitting every day.
In August of 1949, facing Ted Williams was like reading a two-page Choose Your Own Adventure book where Page 2 said: “You lose.”
Incredibly, as September played out, both of these things continued to happen. The Sox ran off a five game winning streak at the beginning of the month as Ted’s streak reached 68 games. But at Game 73, the Sox dropped a doubleheader to Philadelphia. With Boston three games behind and with only 14 to play, “That, the Boston writers noted, virtually ended the American League pennant race.”10 Because really, when were Boston writers ever wrong when it came to Ted Williams?
In the most astounding sequence of an incredible season, the Red Sox then ran off 11 wins in a row. Williams’s batting average and on-base percentage during this stretch were actually slightly below his jaw-dropping standards at .289 and .460, respectively. So he made up for that by slugging .789: a number that can only be described by asking “Are you sure Jose Canseco didn’t invent a time machine?”
In Game 75, Williams spoiled Hal Newhouser’s four-hitter with a home run that accounted for the only run of a 1-0 win. Game 80 found Ted untying a 6-6 deadlock with a game-winning homer “inches over Luke Easter’s glove”11 in the seventh inning.
He followed this up with homers in Games 81 and 82, helping Boston beat the Yankees twice to finally pull into a first place tie. And both streaks continued over the next two days with Ted reaching base in his 84th consecutive game, going 1-for-4 with a walk as the 95-55 Sox beat Washington and took a one game lead over the Yankees with four to play.
And that, unfortunately, was the highpoint of the season. On September 28, the Red Sox faced Ray Scarborough, a pitcher David Halberstam called “poison to their best left-handed hitter.”12 Utilizing a unique pitching motion, “Scarborough could decoy Williams better than any other pitcher in the league.” Sure enough, the streak was finally snapped when Ted went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. The Red Sox would heartbreakingly lose three of their last four to miss out on the pennant by one game.
While it ended in disappointing fashion, the streak remains an astonishing stretch of sustained brilliance for a player who was defined by those words. It’s no stretch to say that this legendary performance did a substantial part to fuel the Red Sox’ furious run over the last half of 1949. And upon close examination, Williams’s streak even manages to eclipse DiMaggio’s. Baseball Prospectus ran the data through our systems, crunched the numbers, and reached the following conclusion:
84 > 56
I await my offer from John Henry’s analytics department any day now.
Breaking it down further, DiMaggio batted .408/.463/.717 during his hitting streak. By comparison, in the first 56 games of Williams’s streak, he put up a .406/.557/.711 slashline. DiMaggio has him by a couple points in both batting and slugging, but Williams’s 94 point lead in on base percentage is so substantial that it more than cancels both of those out.
And while an 84-game on-base streak does allow for hitless games, it also accounts for the most unique stat from that stretch. During that time, Ted had 13 games where he failed to record any hits. Over the course of those contests, he walked 23 times.
Which means that in the games where Ted did not collect a single base hit, he averaged nearly 1.8 times on base.
In his epic biography of Williams, Ben Bradlee, Jr. related the following anecdote:
“Once, two of Ted’s friends were spending the night at his house in the Florida Keys. In the drawer of a bedside table was a small notebook of Williams’s and inside was written: ‘Ways I’m better than DiMaggio.’”13
It turns out that the first entry in that book could have been “Hitting Streaks.”
1. Bradlee Jr, Ben. The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams. New York: Little Brown & Co, 2013. 331.
3. Halberstam, David. Summer of ’49. New York: Avon Books, 1989. 151.
4. Halberstam, 157
5. Nowlin, Bill. 521: The Story of Ted Williams’ Home Runs. Cambridge: Rounder Books, 2013. 151.
7. Nowlin, 155
8. Nowlin, 156
9. Halberstam, 241
10. Halberstam, 242
11. Nowlin, 160
12. Halberstam, 251
13. Bradlee, 334