Having heard more than once about its breath-taking beauty, I've often wondered what it would have been like to see Joe DiMaggio hit a baseball. A superstar before my time in the 1940s and 50s with the Yankees, he is famous, of course, for his never-to-be-broken 56 consecutive game major league hitting streak. There are those who I've heard and read describe his hitting as genius, like Michael Jordan floating through the air, Roger Federer gliding on the tennis court.
I reflect upon DiMaggio because I started reading a biography of him written by Richard Ben Cramer and titled DiMaggio: The Hero's Life. The book reveals that as a 15 year older and in the next few years, he showed people in the San Francisco area leagues how he could hit a baseball much better than any of his peers. It wasn't his hard work, how many practice swings he took. It was his innate natural ability to swing a thin bat and put the meat of it on a small circular ball much more often than everybody else. The odds weigh heavily against a hitter nailing the ball on the meat of the bat and driving it hard and deep. It's stretching physics and the human's hand eye coordination beyond what is natural or do-able by most baseball players. Yet Joe could do it more often than everyone in those San Francisco leagues and, ultimately, everyone in the world. He proved that countless times for the New York Yankees.
Born with the skill he was. He was born with that rarified ability to do something highly difficult sort of like, I believe, an intellectual genius easily solving a calculus problem the first time he tries. In the book Joe is asked how he hits the ball so well, to which he responds (and I paraphrase): "I just hit the ball." The same response comes from other athletic geniuses such as Larry Bird, the all-time NBA great. Asked how he started to become so much better than his high school teammates, he said: "I just figured out that I could do things that my friends who played with me couldn't. It just happened."
As mesmerizing as it would have been to see DiMaggio swing the bat, we have this to be grateful for: Miguel Cabrera. The Detroit Tigers hitting machine is the closest thing to Joe DiMaggio that many of us will ever see in our lifetimes. He hits the ball hard to all fields with so much consistency it's unbelievable. Yesterday he whacked four hits in four at bats including a home run. This is just another day at the ballpark for Cabrera. He gets base hits all the time. You can imagine people gushing about DiMaggio's hitting prowess back in his era the way baseball people do now about Cabrera.
In case you are skeptical of my comparison of Cabrera's prodigious hitting talent to the immortal DiMaggio, consider this. Last season Cabrera won the Triple Crown, leading the league in hits, runs batted in and home runs. A comparison of their career statistics shows how close they are:
DiMaggio (13 years)
Cabrera (11 years)
Runs Batted In
As outstanding as DiMaggio's stats were, you could make the case Cabrera's are even more impressive. He has almost as many home runs in 11 years as DiMaggio hit in 13 years. He is also close to DiMaggio in runs batted in and total number of hits.
But comparing players from different eras, especially ones as undeniably great as these two, doesn't seem necessary nor perhaps legitimate. Pitchers were different then than now.
What is certain about Cabrera and DiMaggio is that their hitting talent has been more innate than the result of hard work and extra swings in the cage. I have no way of proving this, but I conjecture that neither of these guys has spent a lot more time practicing their swings than the average major league player. The league is loaded with guys who practically live in the batting cages day and night working on their swings, taking hundreds of cuts per day. They do so often to remain in the league. Average hitters need to work hard to get enough hits so they don't get sent down to the minor leagues.
Cabrera and DiMaggio have had no such worries. They practiced hitting plenty, I'm sure, but they have special talents to do something extremely difficult better than everyone else in the world. This is not an overstatement when you consider they have been the best hitters in the best baseball league.
How do they do it? I don't think they can explain it. I don't think they can teach it. I don't think it's something that can be learned to the level that these guys practice the art. They are in another league. Their hand-eye coordination is exquisite and not able to be copied. They have an elusive feel for how to get the barrel of that bat on the center of the baseball-damned difficult indeed for almost everyone even really good baseball players. It's like Elton John making a song. He feels it and plays it and sings it. Yet he has difficulty describing how he does it and no one makes songs like he does, and few make better ones.
He is a genius and so have been Cabrera and Joe DiMaggio. They are, arguably, the two greatest all-around hitters of all time factoring in power and batting averages. The great news is we all get to see through Cabrera's hitting what it would have been like to see DiMaggio.
For that we baseball fans are fortunate.