It’s been a hotly debated scientific question for decades: was Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak a genuine statistical outlier, or is it an expected statistical aberration, given the long history of major league baseball? I’d optimistically assumed, based on the work of Harvard physicist Ed Purcell (as cited by Stephen Jay Gould) that DiMaggio was the real deal. Here’s Gould:
Purcell calculated that to make it likely (probability greater than 50 percent) that a run of even fifty games will occur once in the history of baseball up to now (and fifty-six is a lot more than fifty in this kind of league), baseball’s rosters would have to include either four lifetime .400 batters or fifty-two lifetime .350 batters over careers of one thousand games. In actuality, only three men have lifetime batting averages in excess of .350, and no one is anywhere near .400 (Ty Cobb at .367, Rogers Hornsby at .358, and Shoeless Joe Jackson at .356). DiMaggio’s streak is the most extraordinary thing that ever happened in American sports.
But science, with its relentless pursuit of fact and abhorrence of anomalies, has apparently concluded that DiMaggio wasn’t so special after all. In their latest excellent podcast, Radiolab interviews Steve Strogatz, a mathematician at Cornell, who worked with his student Sam Arbesman to simulate the history of MLB only to demonstrate that there was nothing statistically freakish about DiMaggio’s hitting streak. Others, however, aren’t quite so sure. The controversy continues.