Happy 100th Birthday to Joe DiMaggio. An overrated all-time great.


Joe DiMaggio was born 100 years ago today. On the occasion, John Harper of the Daily News talks with baseball historian John Thorn about the Yankee Clipper’s legacy. One that, in Thorn’s view, is a bit greater than the actual baseball merits. Or, to put it like the headline puts it, one that is overrated:

“Baseball is our national religion,” said Thorn. “And belief in DiMaggio is a central tenet. I’m not pooh-poohing him. It’s just that he has been the subject of so much apotheosis — the elevation to the heavens — that it calls for analysis from Dr. Freud rather than Branch Rickey.”

This is undeniably true. DiMaggio was a great hitter, but he was nowhere near the hitter of his contemporary Ted Williams. He was a good center fielder, but he wasn’t even the best defensive center fielder in his own family, for pete’s sake. While one can make a good argument that DiMaggio was the best all-around player on the best team for a handful of years, to suggest — as baseball fans and writers openly suggested for years following his retirement — that DiMaggio was, at any time in his life, “Baseball’s Greatest Living Player” is more than a little crazy. Indeed, at no time in his life was DiMaggio anything close to that, mostly because Willie Mays outlived him and still lives today.

But I think Harper and Thorn get at why the tendency to overrate DiMaggio persists when they talk about how DiMaggio was perceived. And it makes a lot of sense.

Part of it was the hitting streak in 1941 which truly riveted the nation in ways that no baseball event had ever done in close to real time like that. That’s pretty key. Also key: DiMaggio’s Italian-American heritage, which today may not seem like a big deal but certainly was in the 1930s and 40s, giving a lot of people a hero and role model who never truly had one in baseball. Also, don’t sell short the fact that DiMaggio was the star of choice for the parents of Baby Boomers. We’ve seen how outsized a phenomenon can be if Boomers talk about it. You have to figure that also applies to things Boomers talk about their parents talking about, which easily extended DiMaggio’s legacy into the 60s, 70s and beyond.

But Thorn reminds us that, whatever we say about DiMaggio on the merits, that’s not everything when it comes to talking about baseball history:

“But when you put it all together, I think the myth counts. The story counts. It’s not just stats. The DiMaggio myth transcends history and you deny it at your peril. I admire his performance, I’m just letting a little air out of the balloon.”

I think the same can be said about the Derek Jeter coverage of the past few years too. It’s possible to let some air out of the balloon because, man, there’s a lot of air in it, but let’s not forget why there was air there in the first place. DiMaggio (and Jeter) were important to a lot of people. They were leaders of teams that won and the exploits of those teams are, for better or worse, put in their individual columns. Which is fine because most baseball fans don’t consume baseball like analysts do. They have the game as memories and memories often need symbolic placeholders like that.

Anyway, happy 100th Joltin’ Joe. Overrated? Sure. But undeniably great for reasons that transcend our rating of players.

2018 Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The A’s have finished last in the AL West for three straight years. If you believe the folks at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus and anyone else who makes projections, they’ll either finish in last again or come within a game or two of it. There’s not a lot of suspense to my prediction here — I’ll end up picking them to finish fifth — but the prediction is not really what a preview is about. It’s about the shape of the team and what we can expect in broad brushes.

While I can’t foretell greatness for the 2018 Oakland Athletics, I can’t say the broad brushes are bad. At least if you grade on a curve. It won’t be a good team, but they’ll be worth watching because they have a lot of good, fun and interesting players who are likely to be on that next good Oakland A’s team in the way Stephen Vogt and Brett Lawrie were not.

Their lineup is pretty spiffy for a second division team. Khris Davis, Matt Joyce and new acquisition Jonathan Lucroy are known commodities both inside and outside A’s fandom, but people who don’t pay much attention to the goings on in Oakland may not be fully aware of just how good and promising Matt Olson and Matt Chapman are. Olson hit 24 homers in 59 games last year. That’s not a sustainable pace — the league will figure him out to — but even regression from that will be fantastic. Chapman hit 14 in half a season and played superior defense at third base. He also struck out 92 times in half a season but who’s counting? [editor: everyone counts everything in baseball]. Hey, look, dingers! Yonder Alonso and Ryon Healey are gone from last year’s crew and Stephen Piscotty is new in town. Marcus Semien is a decent bat for a shortstop. All-in-all that’s a lineup that will play, and play very, very well if Chapman and Olson are what they’ve shown themselves to be thus far.

At the risk of criminal understatement, allow me to observe that the starting pitching is not as promising. Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman are at the top of the rotation. On good teams they’d be in the middle or the back. The rest of their rotation options — Daniel Mengden, Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn, who will miss the start of the regular season with a sore forearm — are less-than-impressive. They just signed Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson from the scrap heap hoping, I guess, to recreate some of that, uh, 2010 magic? 2010 was a long time ago!

Jharel Cotton would’ve been in the mix but he’s now out for the year for Tommy John surgery. A.J. Puk, the A’s top prospect would be a nice midseason upgrade, but he’s hurt. Not seriously, but the A’s will probably be more careful with him now than they would’ve been, which still would’ve been careful. All-in-all, there was a lack of quality arms to begin with, but with the injuries mounting, starting pitching could be a trash fire for the A’s.

The bullpen has a new look with newcomers Ryan Buchter, Yusmeiro Petit and Emilio Pagan joining 2017 in-season additions Blake Treinen and Chris Hatcher. That’s a pretty good and pretty interesting group which was going to see a lot of innings as it was in our new bullpenning era, but now that the rotation looks shaky as hell, they’ll see even more. If you’re curious about the limits of leaning on a bullpen, postseason-style are, Oakland will be running a pretty fun experiment to that end in 2018.

I look at this club’s bats — especially the young guys upon whom its so very easy to project so much promise and optimism, because I’m a sucker for hitting prospects — and think that they can outperform those statsy projections and be better than the Rangers and Mariners. Then I think about how the upside — UPSIDE! — for the rotation is 380 innings from Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson and I sorta wanna cry.

If the A’s get some breaks and some unexpectedly good (or average) pitching performances, they could certainly finish above the cellar. Perhaps well above the cellar. For now, though, I’m guessing that they’ll be in 80-win territory at best and finish last in a division that does not have any teams totally punting, making for a competitive and, subsequently, tough year.

Prediction: Fifth place, AL West